In 1978 Keith haring left the confines of Kutztown, Pennsylvania to join the intellectual, artistic, and sexual liberation of New York City. Haring enrolled in the School of Visual Arts and rapidly integrated into school and the surrounding environment. "The day I moved was also the day school began. The School of Visual Arts was great. I took the basic foundation classes--which meant classes in drawing, painting, sculpture, and art history. And everything was very exciting at the beginning-the apartment, living in the Village, and going to school. And the whole gay thing was everywhere. I mean, it was almost too much. You couldn't go the post office without cruising or being cruised--without being totally aware of sex. So I fell into this whole thing very easily. And remember, this was 1978--again there was no thought of AIDS" (K. Haring as quoted in J. Gruen, Keith Haring, the Authorized Biography, New York, 1991, p. 35). Keith simultaneously found himself in the midst of an explosive and exciting nightclub scene, frequenting the Mudd Club, Hurrah's, The Danceteria, and Club 57. Dancing, drugs and sex were the norm. It was an exciting time to be alive and assert himself as an artist.
Keith Haring, and slightly later, John-Michel Basquiat, set themselves apart from the contemporary "graffiti artists" by exercising a rigorous studio practice that synthesized art historical references with an awareness for conceptual theory. At first that theory centered itself in literal explorations of language; non-linear textual studies on paper (influenced by Willilam S. Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Roland Barthes, and Umberto Eco), and video. Later Haring distilled a system of universal symbols drawn across Western, African, Asian and Pre-Columbian antecedents to form a non-verbal language that has the power to affect viewers regardless of native culture. These early symbols included the outlined figure, the barking dog, the baby, flying saucers, pyramids, penises and radiant lines to indicate energy and movement.
"I was also combining what was happening at night and what was happening at school, which meant that the subject matter of many of my drawings was completely phallic. All those little abstract shapes I was doing became completely phallic. It was a way of asserting my sexuality and forcing other people to deal with it. Also there were a lot of guys--kids who had just come from high school, from Long Island and New Jersey--who didn't really know why they wanted to become artists. Because of my drawings, and because of how friendly I was, they were sort of forced to respect me and deal with me. I consciously flaunted the fact that I was interested in dicks. So I was becoming friends with these kids through these drawings, and it wasn't about making sexual advances, with I didn't. It was really that I spent 90 percent of my time outside of school being totally obsessed with sex and that became the subject of my work" (ibid, p. 39).