The event was both potentially risky and well publicized. Painting the mural was a highly provocative political statement, but this was familiar territory for the outspoken social rights activist. Haring told The New York Times that the mural was, “a political and subversive act – an attempt to psychologically destroy the wall by painting it.”
The Berlin wall was originally erected in 1961 and spanned nearly 100 miles, reached heights up to 14 feet in some sections and was built to prevent defections from East Berlin into West Berlin. The most famous gate of the wall, Checkpoint Charlie, quickly became a tourist attraction and it was near this gate that Haring was invited by Rainer Hildebrandt, director of the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, to paint his mural.
The approximately 300-foot long section of the wall was first painted yellow and the following day, in less than six hours, Haring completed the mural. On his objective for the mural, Haring said, “I decided on a subject, which is a continuous interlocking chain of human figures, who are connected at their hands and their feet–the chain obviously representing the unity of people as against the idea of the wall. I paint this in the colors of the German flag–black, red and yellow.” Haring called the provocation a “humanistic gesture.”
As onlookers, the press and soldiers looked on as Haring continued his painting, there was also a palpable sense of danger. The New York Times reported, “A West Berlin policeman used a megaphone to warn him of the fact (that he was in East German territory). But Mr. Haring continued, sporadically leaping back onto Western soil when East German border guards looked as if they were about to arrest him.”
The mural was typical of Haring’s upbeat agitprop style and was received with some mixed reviews. Within days, most of the mural had been vandalized and painted over, leaving little left of the original piece.
It must have thrilled Haring to see the collapse of the Berlin wall in November of 1989. He died of AIDS-related complications just three months later. His legacy lives on through the murals that remain and his work continues to be sought after by fine art collectors and inspires graphic designers, illustrators and street artists worldwide.