'We the Youth' recreates Keith Haring's vision


“Welcome to our block,” a confident Tanya Covington said.

The block captain of 22nd and Ellsworth streets was beaming with excitement Saturday afternoon, as she looked out to a cheery crowd of neighbors and friends flooding her Point Breeze street. It was a celebration, and her appreciation was contagious as she stood in front of a recently restored Keith Haring mural facing 22nd Street named “We the Youth” — the late artist’s only collaborative public mural that is still intact at its original site. Thanks to the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, the 26-year-old mural is in tip-top shape again for Covington and her neighbors to enjoy for decades to come.

It was 1987 when Haring and a group of teens from CityKids, a New York organization founded just two years prior to engage youth, skipped town to the City of Brotherly Love and partnered with Brandywine Workshop, 730 S. Broad St., to create the iconic mural in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution. Haring, known for his street art, gave South Philly a taste of pop art in a piece that celebrates diversity. “We the Youth” has an energetic and joyful feel, as it depicts Haring’s signature dancing figures in the brightest of colors. Sean Stoops, of 16th and Tasker streets, described it as a piece of art that speaks to people of all ages.

“The way the figures on the wall appear, people can project themselves in the figures,” Stoops said.

Only three years after Haring’s collaborative work in South Philly, he died from an AIDS-related illness at age 31.

As Jane Golden, Mural Arts’ executive director, noted at the restoration celebration this weekend, Haring was a beloved artist who was influential to many. He believed deeply in the public process, and that the public has the right to art. Haring, who grew up in Kutztown, also was a devoted philanthropist, often aiding underprivileged youth.

“He created nonstop in his lifetime, he had a style that was distinct and fearless,” Golden said. “He is one of those special artists who expanded the definition of what artists do.”

Although the Mural Arts Program has restored many murals around the city, this one was especially exciting for Golden, as she met Haring in ’87 when he was painting it. She said he gave her, and the Anti-Graffiti Network at the time, confidence in their mission, and was “so supportive.”

“He was like, ‘Don’t listen to what anyone says, just keep working, do what you believe in,’” Golden said. “All these years later, in all my life since then, it has stayed with me.”

She added that Haring’s words helped guide and transform the direction of the Mural Arts Program in Philadelphia, the largest public art initiative in the United States, which does about 30 to 40 preservation restorations per year.

In 2000, Golden said she and her colleagues noticed the Haring mural deteriorating and knew something needed to be done.

“We fixed it up, but we didn’t do a good job,” she said, noting that the Mural Arts Program was still learning the ropes of the process.

It wasn’t until last summer when Lucas Bryant, a resident at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, and his wife Erica bought the home that major moves were made. To the Bryants’ surprise, a simple e-mail to the Keith Haring Foundation, which Haring started in 1989, went a lot longer of a way than the couple from Minnesota ever could have imagined, they said.

Describing the structural damage of the wall the mural was painted on, Lucas Bryant said, “We wanted to preserve this art for the community.”

The Keith Haring Foundation, which gives grants to nonprofit charitable and education-oriented organizations, gave $30,000 to Mural Arts to spearhead the restoration. This grant afforded them the opportunity to hire Kim Alsbrooks and a crew of artists to restore the creation with the most durable paints available.

“This mural is not going anywhere for a while,” Alsbrooks said, adding that the work will be sealed with a UV-protection varnish soon.

The Haring Foundation funding also allowed Mural Arts to hire a landscape architect, South Philly resident Michael LoFurno, and partner with Neighborhood Gardens Trust to creatively revamp the garden — with benches, a modern design and a new fence — in front of the mural.

“Now visitors can get up close and personal,” Margaret McCarvill, board president of Neighborhood Gardens Trust, said.

The celebration drew not only South Philly neighbors, but also members of CityKids, who put on a performance while event attendees munched on free food from local lunch trucks.

“I really appreciate Haring’s artwork, I’m wearing one of his designs on my shirt right now,” 21-year-old Steven Prescod, a five-year member of CityKids who shocked the crowd with his singing and dancing, said. “He’s a really inspiring artist, and it’s amazing to be a part of something like this.”

The Haring family also was in attendance to celebrate and honor their treasured Keith.

“It’s hard to believe that the Keith Haring you’re all talking about is the young man who we had to discipline,” Al Haring, Keith’s father, joked.

Jenyse Carpenter, who lives between Ellsworth and Federal on 22nd Street, didn’t hesitate to stop by. And it wasn’t just because of the smell of homemade, cheesy pizza and abnormally warm November weather. She’s appreciated Haring’s work since she was in high school, Carpenter said, when she first learned of him.

“It’s nice to celebrate his work that’s still here, it’s good for the youth and for all the neighbors,” she said. “It also gives us a sense of community, and it’s bringing us all together, which is pretty awesome. Because really, how often do events like this happen in the community?”

Second District Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who grew up in Point Breeze, described the mural as a transformative contribution to the neighborhood,

“It would be the murals that would inspire me and give me a sense of hope that there was something more than the negativity that I would see in my neighborhood,” he said. “This is one of those murals.” 

Contact the South Philly Review at editor@southphillyreview.com.