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Still Wack

New York Newsday By Rocco Parascandola


Twenty years after the height of the crack epidemic, Keith Haring’s simple message still speaks loudly

It was just another act of graffiti in East Harlem. It even said so on Keith Haring’s $25 summons.

But when then-Parks Commissioner Henry Stern heard about Haring’s strong anti-drug message – “Crack Is Wack” – he asked the artist to finish the mural, setting the stage for what is now a cultural landmark in New York City.

Twenty years later, “Crack is Wack” remains a part of the city landscape, Haring’s stark imagery visible to thousands of motorists along the Harlem River Drive and to youngsters who play on nearby streets.

“It means a lot to this neighborhood,” Harlem resident Albert Griffith, 39, said as he sat in the park. “For a lot of people who used crack, it meant nothing to them, but I think some people looked at it and got the message.”

Stern agreed. “I don’t know how many people were deterred by crack, but it certainly brought a level of publicity to it.”

Message still resonates

Haring, who died in 1990 at the age of 31 of complications from AIDS, is best remembered for his bold, bright murals and a strong belief that art should be accessible to everyone.

According to the Haring Foundation, which carries on charitable work in his memory, the “Crack Is Wack” mural that he began June 27, 1986, was borne of his sadness for a friend in the throes of crack addiction.

The message resonates 20 years later, with Haring’s family still getting fan mail.

“We get letters from the foundation from people all over the world who say they’ve seen the mural or have a ‘Crack Is Wack’ T-shirt,” Haring’s father, Allen, said from his home in Kutztown, Pa. “We’re often surprised at how far-reaching his popularity is.”

Twenty years ago, crack was beginning to take hold of the city, with an astonishing number of drug users falling sway to its effects and neighborhoods across the city turning into veritable war zones.

It’s not clear why Haring chose to express himself on the handball court inside the small park at Second Avenue and East 128th Street. His choice, however, was ideal. The wall’s proximity to the Harlem River Drive, about 10 feet away, gives drivers a bird’s-eye view of his mural – cartoonish bodies outlined in black, a tell-tale X across their chests.

At first, though, it got Haring only a day in court. That was until Stern intervened, offering Haring his benediction.

So, in October 1986, Haring headed uptown to finish what he had started. Someone had painted “Crack Is It” on the mural, but it was otherwise intact.

Today, the small patch of asphalt, formerly Harlem River Park, is officially known as the Crack is Wack Playground.

“It’s become an icon,” Stern said.

A lasting impression

The Parks Department maintains the mural with the help of funding from the Haring Foundation. It has been defaced a few times, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe said, but “generally speaking, there is respect for works of art like this.”

Crack, meanwhile, is still part of the city landscape, though police and drug experts said it is far from the pervasive force it once was, in large part because its victims – both living and dead – scared off the next generation.

Even for addicts like George Castrello, 46, the mural made a lasting impression. “I started using crack in 1985 and I remember hearing about the painting,” said Castrello, now in treatment at Odyssey House, not far from the mural. “It kind of made me aware that there are people out there against the drug I was using. It kind of made me secretive about using the drug. Everybody was like, ‘Crack is wack, crack is wack.’

“But I can’t say it did anything to stop me from using it,” he added. “When you’re addicted to a certain substance you’re really not hearing what other people are saying. The decision has to come from inside.”

For youngsters in the park recently, the choice seems clear. “I like to play basketball and when you’re in the park and you see something like that, it sends a message,” said one 11-year-old. “You realize crack is bad.”

Or, crack is wack. In 2002, the Oxford English Dictionary added “wack” to its newest edition, defining it as “bad, harmful, unfashionable.”

Copyright 2006 Newsday Inc.

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