The incredible stories of Keith Haring in Antwerp and Amsterdam

As a Brussels-based art studio with deep roots across Belgium and the Netherlands, THE SKATEROOM is fascinated by how our partner artists have touched our homelands over their careers.

Why did they come? What did they create? Where did they leave their mark? Keith Haring, the NYC icon, created murals here, he exhibited in galleries in the likes of Amsterdam, Antwerp and Knokke, the inspiring stories of his generosity, dedication and how his work escaped those galleries and found life on the streets, are all around us. But we wanted details, juice. So we got in touch with a few people who followed Haring while he was over this side of the pond to find out more. It’s time for a trip down memory lane.

Inside out: the Stedelijk welcomes Haring

It’s 1986, and Keith Haring – 27 years old – has made it to Amsterdam. In town for an exhibition following the success of his debut in Rotterdam back in ‘82, Haring has a huge opportunity here. He’s going solo in the legendary Stedelijk modern art gallery, the jewel of the city’s museum district. It is a first for the artist. And it’s a first for the Stedelijk, which wants a piece of the rising Hip Hop and graffiti subcultures that beloved Haring. With industrial space in Amsterdam becoming home to the squatting alternative art collectives in the city, the gallery’s new director Wim Beeren sees an opportunity to bring this rich subculture into the gallery space and be one with the times.

“... because it’s a major museum in Amsterdam, the show had phenomenal attendance. For me, it was an overwhelming experience, showing at the Stedelijk Museum. I felt I had really accomplished something.”

- Keith Haring

Haring was in. But there could be no compromises. His authentic, beautifully optimistic style was something that people resonated with. It was precisely because his work originated on the urban walls of NYC that Haring was getting so much attention in galleries worldwide. How to preserve this authenticity in one of the biggest contemporary art museums in Europe? Chris Reinewald, author of The Dutch Adventures of Keith Haring, explains: ‘Art historically speaking, it was the meeting of a museum approach and street art. Many conservative art critics opposed ‘graffiti’ being shown in a museum.” In fact, Haring himself opposes the term in his negotiations with Beeren & the Stedelijk.

“I’m not interested in only doing an installation. It’s very important to me that there be some paintings exhibited at the same time as the installation. I don’t want to be presented simply as a ‘graffiti performer’.”

- Keith Haring, Letter to Stedelijk

By having a combination of monumental wall paintings, workshops with local kids and the installation of a woven, spray-painted canopy, during his solo debut at the Stedelijk the artist is able to straddle the interests of both gallery- and street- art audiences. While some critics take issue with this approach, there is no doubt in anybody’s mind: Haring has arrived.

“The opening in Amsterdam is <...> exciting.<...> The show has phenomenal attendance. For me, it was an overwhelming experience, showing at the Stedelijk Museum. I felt I had really accomplished something.”

All is well, for the moment. But it isn’t long before the disgruntled Stadskunstguerilla (SKG) – a ‘culture police’ movement headed up by alternative art collectives – get wind of Haring’s apparent transgression of agreeing to exhibit at the Stedelijk, and decide to take action.

Street art, where it belongs.

Reinewald’s article, a wonderful account of Keith Haring’s adventures in Amsterdam, tells the story of two leather-jacketed young men, Josje Picasso and Erik de Schuimer, approaching Haring during his exhibition. They throw homophobic insults at the artist, who turns around and simply walks away. While his back is turned, a drunken Josje pulls down Haring’s ‘Bam!’ piece from the wall, folds it up, and the two make their escape.

One way or another, it seems Haring’s work is destined to make it back out onto the streets. But Haring is upset by the theft and shocked by the lack of a proper investigation. This theft shakes his enthusiasm for the event. Public attendance is still high, but without the ‘Bam!’ piece, his series is incomplete. Meanwhile, the critics take this opportunity to go for the jugular: “Haring is balancing on a razor’s edge, risking losing his fame through overexposure” writes Lamoree, while Scholte predicts that Haring’s artistic legacy won’t survive much longer.

In spite of the negative atmosphere, Haring tirelessly continues with his workshops with kids from the large, multicultural Amsterdam Oost neighborhood. He is spurred on by that same social commitment which had him promote AIDs and LGBTQ+ charities during his lifetime. The idea is for them to play a kind of ‘musical chairs’ with felt pens and a sprawling canvas, drawing together on huge reels of paper, swapping positions regularly so the children can improvise and interact with each other's work. The boys immediately start drawing cocks on everything, the girls go for animals and plants – perhaps inspired by the two faces of Haring’s own work.

“You see them lose their interest in penises after a while, and switch to fairy-tale characters. Getting something like that out of their system was probably the best bit of the workshop."

Keith Haring, to journalist Pieter van Oudheusden

Meanwhile, the Spuistraat squatters bar ‘De Muur’ is growing uneasy as Erik (one of the two thieves) boasts about their antics. Barman, Melle Daamen, seeing the atmosphere turn sour, plans to call the Stedelijk and negotiate the drawing’s return. After some persuasion, Erik agrees, providing that in return Haring will donate an original drawing to Amnesty International, so they can sell it at an auction.

Even more begrudgingly, Haring agrees to these terms, the exchange takes place and – miffed, but ultimately satisfied with the trip – the artist arranges his return to New York City. Before he goes, he makes a last ditch effort to shake some of the bad vibes from his aura: painting a figure riding a massive sea creature on a wall in what is now Amsterdam West’s Food Centre. This is Keith’s biggest mural in Europe, measuring 15 metres wide, and is currently undergoing restoration.

Amsterdam is a trip of mixed feelings, and ends in much the same way. Days after Haring leaves, Amnesty writes back to the SKG refusing the donation of the drawing on the grounds that it has been given dishonestly. On the bright side, the Stedelijk extends Haring’s exhibition by eight days due to popular demand. Haring writes to Wim Beeren: “Although it’s been a while since my show, I’m still enjoying the after effects. All over the world, I run into people who saw the exhibition. <...> I would like to donate to the museum. I am very grateful to you all for the sincerity and courage you showed by realizing the Keith Haring exhibition at the Stedelijk. <...> I hope to see you again soon.” <Source>

Haring Returns: Antwerp

A year after the Stedelijk adventure, Haring finds himself once again in Europe. This time on the invitation of Antwerp’s Emmy Tob, a gallerist and art collector who was already displaying Haring’s work in her Gallery 121 back in ‘83 after a chance meeting with him in the US the year before.

“I first met him at his atelier in New York, ‘82. I saw his Foundation which existed even then. We experienced all that with him. I remember he could talk about everything: from politics to pure misery. But his work was spontaneous; so fast and he never repeated the same line twice!”

- Emmy Tob

Now, in 1987, Emmy wants Haring in ‘the lowlands’, in person. Together with Knokke-based collector Roger Nellens, who has the idea of exhibiting him at the historic Knokke Casino (where Delvaux and Magritte were once displayed), Tob is finally able to realise this dream with a solo exhibition for Haring at the Antwerp Museum of Contemporary Art.

Haring and his new Belgian friends explore the city together, Tob touring him around Antwerp in preparation for the upcoming solo exhibition. “We talked about artists that he liked – Warhol, for example. They were precious to him.” remembers Emmy. “I got the sense then that he loved to visit Belgium. The exhibition at the Casino was already a great success.” Haring was in high spirits.

Keepin’ it Fresque

Partly because of his love for Antwerp and his new entourage, partly because Keith Haring is simply one of the most generous people to have ever graced the contemporary art world; when the exhibition organized by Emmy Tob at the Antwerp Museum of Contemporary Art comes around, Haring wants to do more than just sit back and let the reviews flood in. He gets to work on a fresque in the cafe.

“Wednesday, June 17, 1987. 2.30 p.m. Begin painting mural on wall in cafeteria. Press opening for museum is ending, but some photographers arrange to return. The wall is very smooth and some of the paint is difficult. I have to get pigment and ink to add to the black paint for a more dense line. I finish mural in 5 hours. The lady working in the restaurant is amusing, but seems genuinely thrilled by the addition to her cafeteria. She keeps offering me soda + beer + food <...>”

- Keith Haring, Diary Entry

Created for free as a gift to the museum, and a thank you for the warm welcome Haring received by the Belgian art community, the mural remains one of the only public Keith Haring artworks you can visit for free within a gallery context. It costs nothing to enter the cafeteria, after all.

“He didn’t have much money at the time. So we had to support him materially for that fresque. It’s partly because of us that it exists at all. But then, Haring left traces of himself everywhere. He came to our home, painted on my kids' jeans. These were gifts, they would appear all over the place. He was so generous.”

- Emmy Tob

“An exceptional person”, “an artist of heart”. Haring decides to return to Belgium a handful of times before his death in 1990, both for exhibitions and to visit places he liked with his mother and boyfriend. It was the time of AIDs, the illness which took Haring’s life, and so while he was travelling through the country, Haring would see a local doctor on the recommendation of Roger Nellens. Emmy recalls very little talk or evidence of him being sick, other than this.

Though sales of Haring were struggling at the time, the exhibitions were always a wonderful experience for Tob. “It was a pleasure to exhibit him. We did several exhibitions over the years. Back then, people thought it was easy, like children’s drawings. But I can honestly say he is one of our favorite artists ever.” At THE SKATEROOM, we couldn’t agree more.

Knowing how much Keith Haring touched our homelands, finding the evidence in murals and memories alike, it makes us feel blessed to be able to create limited art editions ourselves which feature the work of this late, great artist. We are inspired daily by his generosity and commitment to social causes – it’s something which underpins everything we do at THE SKATEROOM – and we hope that this little trip back in time has touched you as much as it has us.

Want to own a little trace of Haring’s incredible legacy?
You can shop our Keith Haring editions now here.

Untitled 1984 - Keith HARING Untitled 1984 - Keith HARING - Museum of Modern Art, Antwerp. Artwork © Keith Haring Foundation. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

Our thanks go out to Emmy Tob and Chris Reinewald for their help in this Keith Haring history. We encourage you to visit Gallery 121 and read The Dutch Adventure’s of Keith Haring if you’d like to learn more. Thanks also to our partners Artestar, as well as Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam and the M HKA, Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp for supporting us in creating this piece.