"Once Upon a Time," Keith Haring Painted an Explicit Masterpiece Across a Public Bathroom

Keith Haring, Once Upon a Time (1989)
Keith Haring, Once Upon a Time (1989) | © Keith Haring Foundation. Photo credit: Liz Ligon. Courtesy of The LGBT Community Center.
Rachel Gould

Art & Design Editor

A pioneering artist whose vehement social activism informed one of Pop-graffiti’s best-known oeuvres, Keith Haring treated New York City as his canvas. But what even the savviest locals may not know is that one of his greatest murals is preserved where they’d least expect it, on view without an admission charge, seven days a week.

Across four white walls, spectacularly sexual creatures radiate and intertwine. Signed “K. Haring” and dated “5.27.89,” Once Upon a Time would be one of the 31-year-old artist’s last major public artworks before he tragically succumbed to AIDS less than a year later.

Keith Haring, Once Upon a Time (1989)

Keith Haring created Once Upon a Time to honor the 20th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising—a series of riots in Manhattan’s West Village that marked a significant turning point in the Gay Liberation movement.

The mural resides on the second floor men’s bathroom in The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center on West 13th Street, where it was originally painted for a group exhibition of site-specific artworks titled The Center Show.

Keith Haring, Once Upon a Time (1989)

Known for bridging the gap between fine and public art, many of Keith Haring’s artworks advocated gay rights, safe sex, and HIV/AIDS awareness by way of illustrated posters for The AIDS Hotline, and a famous PSA that reads “Ignorance = Fear” and “Silence = Death.” As the Reagan administration mocked the epidemic, Haring was a crusading force in championing AIDS research.

But there’s something intimate about Once Upon a Time, the artist’s last major musing on the days before AIDS tore through the gay community. An exalted celebration of sexuality, it exists outside the confines of Haring’s own tragic reality.

Keith Haring, Once Upon a Time (1989)

Haring’s mural suffered extensive damage over the years, but the masterpiece was fully restored in 2015. The space in which it’s situated is no longer a bathroom. Rather, it serves as a humble homage to Haring’s legacy, and the freedom he dreamt of for the community at large.

The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender Community Center, 208 West 13th Street, New York, NY 10011 is open to the public from 9am until 10pm Monday through Saturday, 9am to 9pm on Sundays.

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