Who's Afraid of Keith Haring's Ghost?
With the city (and the cops) on his tail, the artist behind Jacksonville's most provocative graffiti speaks out
The man I'll call Keith sits across from me at a diner in San Marco on Saturday afternoon, eyes hidden behind sunglasses even though we're inside. If you've lived around here long enough, and if you're at all plugged into the local arts scene, you'd probably recognize him. He is, after all, a Jacksonville native and one of the city's most prominent visual artists. The city knows who he is, he says. The cops do, too, and by the time you read this, they may have arrested him. But for now, for reasons I'll get into later, he wants to remain anonymous.
The story he tells me begins in early July, a few days after the verdict came down in the George Zimmerman trial. He was outraged — as would be any good liberal who harbors a fair amount of "white guilt" borne of his parents' not-quite-evolved attitudes on race — watching Trayvon Martin's killer go free, and he wanted to say something about it.
So he did. A few days later, the first of what would become a series of graffiti images of Trayvon, depicted as a white-spray-painted angel wearing a hoodie, appeared in San Marco, on a *utility box in front of the posh Matthew's restaurant. It was an unabashed homage to Keith Haring, the famed street artist of 1980s New York City. Haring used bold lines and bright colors. His pop art was infused with social and political commentary, especially on sexuality. (Haring was gay, and died of complications from AIDS in 1990.)
"That stuff was super-political," Keith says. "Images that tell stories."
More works followed in the ensuing weeks and months — on the CoRK Arts District building, on the back of the Chomp Chomp building, in 5 Points, then to storefronts and buildings and utility boxes all over the city. His topical universe expanded, too, targeting Fox News and gun deaths and those who wanted to bomb Syria. A piece in the city's Brooklyn neighborhood shows two male figures kissing — a reaction, he says, to the city's refusal to extend equal rights protections to gays and lesbians. Another utility-box painting had big red hearts and images of people hugging — reflections, he says, of Haring's emphasis on love and unity.
Sometimes his graffiti would stay up for weeks. Other times, the city or the building owner removed it right away.
Keith eventually began signing his work "Keith Haring 2013," so as to make clear that this was an homage and not plagiarism. He started a Facebook page under this moniker and racked up some 600 likes in just a few days. People were starting to take notice.
Not all the attention was positive. The Keith Haring Foundation contacted him online and asked him to stop using the artist's name. The Foundation then contacted Facebook, which took down his page.
"I tried to do the right thing," Keith says. "I ceased using his signature." Instead, he began signing his work "KHG," for "Keith Haring's Ghost." He also quit using two staples of Haring's work, including an image known as the Radiant Baby.
But he didn't stop.
Keith is, as artists tend to be, enthusiastic about his own work to the point of self-aggrandizement. "That one's so fucking good!" he exclaimed as we drove by one of his pieces. It's on a box at the intersection of Hendricks and Landon. It shows two heads intertwined. "Isn't that beautiful? Look at how fucked up that box was."
The box was, indeed, fucked up. The way Keith sees it, he's doing the city a favor by enlivening eyesores. His is the kind of work the city should be encouraging.
David Engdahl, the chair of the city's Art in Public Places Commission, seems to agree: "Many cities have engaged utilitarian elements for public art, and we believe that done with the proper subjects, design and technical execution, these can add life to an otherwise bleak and utilitarian element in the environment," he told me in an email. "… Painted utility boxes are a staple in many cities and neighborhoods throughout the country, specifically produced in partnership with municipal public art programs because of their immediate visual enhancement and minimal budgets."
But the problem is, Keith wasn't operating in partnership with anybody. He didn't have the city's permission. He is, according to the letter of the law, a vandal. Graffiti is graffiti is graffiti.
Last month, Keith got word that the police were asking around about his namesake, apparently unaware that the real Keith Haring had been dead for more than 20 years. Shortly before the Christmas holiday, he caught wind of an email circulating between a city councilmember and the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville: Did they know who this Haring guy was? (No.) Wouldn't this graffiti ruin those utility boxes? (No.)
Keith was spooked. For months, he'd had artists and family members operating as lookouts while he worked — each piece takes about five hours, and he always painted in the dead of night — but that was more about weirdos than the cops. After all, he says, the police had seen him working Downtown, and they'd never really bothered him. Still, as long as the city didn't know who he was, he wasn't overly concerned. After a few weeks, he assumed the heat had blown over.
But then last week, an artist friend in Riverside called. An officer with the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office's anti-graffiti squad had come by and asked for Keith by name — by his real name. The officer presented a giant portfolio with photo after photo of Keith's work, and said the cops wanted Keith to get in touch with them to arrange his arrest.
Keith had his lawyer, Alan Rosner, call the officer, who confirmed that, yes, the police were planning to arrest him sometime this week. (Rosner declined to comment. Calls to the city's general counsel's office and the JSO were not returned by press time.)
"This is well-done, well-executed graffiti," Keith says. "They want to fucking arrest me?"
"I don't know why, necessarily, it's controversial," says Tony Allegretti, the Jax Chamber director of Downtown engagement. "I was surprised to hear there was any kind of negativity around [Keith's works]. I think they add to the beautification of our neighborhoods. … The only thing left to discuss is, what's the process next time? In an ideal situation, we're one meeting away. How can we take something that lacks a process and create a process?"
There is, in fact, a process — though it's never really been used. In 2011, Engdahl says, the city adopted a policy that considers all kinds of Downtown "street furniture" — parking meters, benches, bike racks, utility boxes and so on — potential palettes. Artists just need to make their case to the AIPP Commission for approval. (One of the criteria the program would use to judge the artist's proposal is "appropriateness," so there's a good chance pieces on gays and guns and Trayvon Martin wouldn't make the cut.)
"People in the city keep telling me, in Jacksonville, people usually do things first and ask for forgiveness later," Keith says. "That's kind of the only way to get things done. I did these beautiful things for the city. Now I'm asking for forgiveness."
Toward the end of our afternoon together, I asked Keith why, if the city and the cops and a healthy portion of the arts community knew who he was, he insisted on anonymity.
He paused for a second, and wondered aloud if putting his name out there might further his cause. I said it might. He sort of shrugged. Doing so, he replied, would cheapen the homage. Besides, he likes the mystery, even if it's not the best-kept secret. And if he can, he'd like to keep doing it.
If the city does arrest him this week, however, the remaining shreds of anonymity will evaporate: "They were hoping that I would come in nicely," he told me in a text message a couple days later. "I'm NOT turning myself in!!! If the pressure on the city and all the hoopla doesn't free me, then I will go down painting."
*Correction: The print version of this story identified these boxes as belonging to the Jacksonville Electric Authority. They do not. We regret the error.