10 Surprising Facts About Keith Haring

Born on May 4, 1958 in Reading, Pennsylvania, Keith Haring is best known for his contributions to the New York City art scene in the 1980s. His graffiti-inspired artwork depicted simplified people, dogs, babies, hearts, and flying saucers. He often painted bold lines and bright colors to convey feelings of movement and radiance, and although he died in 1990 at just 31 years old, his artwork and legacy live on. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the artist, who would have turned 60 years old today.

1. ALL HIS SIBLINGS’S NAMES ALSO STARTED WITH THE LETTER 'K.'

Long before the Kardashians, all the children in Keith Haring’s family shared a first initial of K. His parents, Allen and Joan Haring, named their four kids Keith, Kay, Karen, and Kristen. The oldest child and only son, Keith loved watching and drawing cartoons like Mickey Mouse, Dr. Seuss, and Peanuts. As a young adult, he moved to New York City to pursue his love of art. Kristen Haring later recalled how her older brother would call home from New York to tell his family about his celebrity dinner companions, such as Grace Jones and Madonna.

2. NEW YORK SUBWAYS AND STREET CULTURE INSPIRED HIM.

Beginning in his early twenties, Haring used chalk to draw art in New York’s subways. The walls of the subway stations had panels—empty spaces for advertising—posted with black paper that Haring drew on with white chalk. His subway drawings were simple, and he did dozens of drawings per day in front of people who would watch him and ask him what the drawings meant.

3. HE FREQUENTLY GOT ARRESTED FOR HIS SUBWAY ART.

Although people generally felt positively towards Haring’s subway drawings, the NYPD ticketed and arrested him multiple times for vandalism. And despite drawing quickly to avoid getting arrested, he was still caught in the act by the cops. “More than once, I've been taken to a station handcuffed by a cop who realized, much to his dismay, that the other cops in the precinct are my fans and were anxious to meet me and shake my hand,” Haring said. By 1984, Haring’s artwork was so popular that people would steal his chalk drawings from subway stations and sell them.

4. HE BEFRIENDED ANDY WARHOL AND MADONNA.

Haring became very involved in the 1980s downtown New York art scene, befriending visual artists and performers such as Andy Warhol and Madonna. In a series of paintings called Andy Mouse, Haring depicted Andy Warhol with sunglasses and Mickey Mouse ears. And Haring tried his hand at fashion designing when he made a jacket and skirt for Madonna to wear for her performances—which she says she'd "never give up." She told Rolling Stone that she'd been introduced to him through a roommate, and then "we started hanging out at [legendary New York nightclubs] Danceteria and Mudd Club and the Roxy. … We'd dance, we'd watch break-dancing crews there and on the street."

5. HIS ORIGINAL ARTWORK IS ALL OVER THE WORLD.

In the 1980s, Haring drew public works murals around New York City, including his "Crack is Wack" mural at East 128th Street and Harlem River Drive. Although he’s best known as a New York artist, he didn’t stay solely in the city. He traveled all around the world to paint public murals in cities such as Paris, Berlin, Pisa, Sydney, Melbourne, and Rio de Janeiro. In these cities, he painted at children’s hospitals, charities, churches, and orphanages.

6. HE OPENED HIS OWN SHOP TO MAKE HIS ART ACCESSIBLE TO EVERYONE, NOT JUST ART COLLECTORS.

In 1986, Haring opened the Pop Shop, a retail store in Soho (New York), to sell merchandise. The store offered shirts, posters, magnets, and buttons with his artwork on them. Aiming to make his art accessible to a larger audience, Haring opened another Pop Shop in Tokyo in 1987. Critics accused the artist of engaging in crass commercialism, but Haring asserted that he was doing the opposite of "selling out." "My work was starting to become more expensive and more popular within the art market," Haring said. "Those prices meant that only people who could afford big art prices could have access to the work. The Pop Shop makes it accessible."

7. HIS AIDS DIAGNOSIS INSPIRED HIS ARTWORK.

In 1988, Haring, who was openly gay, was diagnosed with AIDS, after many of his friends and partners had been dying of AIDS for years. He worked to raise AIDS awareness through his artwork, such as with his piece Silence=Death, and he incorporated symbols of homosexuality and AIDS—a pink triangle, horned sperm, and devils—in his art. "The hardest thing is just knowing that there's so much more stuff to do," he told Rolling Stone in 1989. "I'm a complete workaholic. I'm so scared that one day I'll wake up and I won't be able to do it." He died of complications from AIDS six months later, at 31 years old.

8. HE STARTED THE KEITH HARING FOUNDATION TO CONTINUE HIS LEGACY.

In 1989, a year after his AIDS diagnosis, Haring started the Keith Haring Foundation. Besides being passionate about AIDS awareness and prevention, Haring loved working with children to create collaborative murals. During his life, Haring led art workshops for kids in museums and schools around the world. The Keith Haring Foundation gives funding to children’s charities, AIDS research, and AIDS education, and it manages and licenses his artwork. Haring’s Pop Shop in New York stayed open for 15 years after his death before closing in 2005. (The Pop Shop in Tokyo closed in 1988.)

9. THE WORLD’S BIGGEST JIGSAW PUZZLE FEATURES HARING’S ART.


Getty Images

You can buy and assemble a massive jigsaw puzzle, which features 32 of Haring’s art pieces in one giant puzzle measuring over 17 feet by 6 feet. The 32,256 piece “Double Retrospect” puzzle, manufactured by a German puzzle company, weighs 42 pounds and is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest commercially-available puzzle in the world.

10. A KEITH HARING BALLOON IN THE MACY’S THANKSGIVING DAY PARADE CAUSED TROUBLE.

A 48-foot tall Keith Haring balloon, called “Figure With Heart,” appeared in the 2008 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, but it caused a ruckus when it hit the NBC broadcast booth, briefly interrupting the televised broadcast of the parade. The balloon—a white figure holding a red heart over its head—was based on an ink drawing that Haring had done. Manned by Haring's father, the balloon was featured in the parade to celebrate 50 years since the artist’s birth.

The Mona Lisa Does Not Actually Cause the ‘Mona Lisa Effect’

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Do you ever feel like you’re being watched? By a certain Leonardo da Vinci painting, perhaps? Scientists call it the Mona Lisa effect: the sense that the eyes of a figure in a painting or photograph are following you as you move around the room. But according to a new study in the journal i-Perception, the eyes in the Mona Lisa painting don’t actually fit the criteria.

The Mona Lisa effect is real—scholars have documented the phenomenon for nearly 2000 years. The effect doesn’t just depend on the direction of the painted figure’s gaze. The figure’s head position in the painting and the slant of the picture itself create specific geometric conditions in space, distorting the viewer’s perception of the painted person’s stare. The sensation can occur no matter where the viewer is in relation to the portrait.

Until now, according to researchers at Bielefeld University in Germany, no one had tested the effect on the Mona Lisa itself. Gernot Horstmann and Sebastian Loth, members of the university’s Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology, designed a study in which 24 participants viewed 15 different sections of the Mona Lisa painting on a monitor. A simple ruler was placed in front of the monitor, and each viewer marked the spot where they thought the gaze landed on the ruler, which indicated its angle.

An angle of zero meant a straight-at-the-viewer look. A slightly sideward gaze toward the viewer’s ear, corresponding to a 5-degree angle, would still prompt the sense of being watched. "But as the angle increases, you would not have the impression of being looked at,” Horstmann said in a statement.

After analyzing about 2000 assessments from participants, the researchers found that viewers felt the gaze of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece to be at an angle of 15.4 degrees—looking off to their right-hand side, rather than directly at them.

“It is clear that the term Mona Lisa effect is nothing but a misnomer,” Horstmann said. But even though this particular phenomenon has been demystified, people's obsession with the painting will surely continue.

11 Secrets of Perfumers

Orlando/Three Lions/Getty Images
Orlando/Three Lions/Getty Images

Perfumers are a rare breed. These half-artist, half-scientist hybrids undergo rigorous training, memorize the smells of hundreds of ingredients, and spend decades honing their craft—which might explain why there are reportedly more astronauts than perfumers in the world, according to the BBC.

For many, the job isn't merely about peddling bottles of sweet-smelling stuff to consumers; the goal is to convey an emotion, create a beautiful moment, or jog a childhood memory. To find out what it takes to create top-notch fragrances, Mental Floss spoke with three perfumers who broke into the industry through very different paths.

1. Perfumers can identify hundreds of ingredients by smell alone.

A large perfume organ with hundreds of fragrance bottles
Mandy Aftel's perfume organ
By Joel Bernstein // Courtesy of Mandy Aftel

Master perfumers are sometimes called a nez—the French word for "nose"—for good reason. They commit hundreds of scents to memory and can distinguish between ingredients that would smell identical to the untrained nose. Many perfumers can also tell an essential oil from a synthetic material, which is no small feat. “You’re talking maybe 200 essential oils and about 1500 synthetic materials,” Jodi Wilson, a classically trained perfumer who now works as a fragrance sales manager for Orchidia Fragrances in Chicago, says of the ingredients perfumers typically employ.

The trick, she says, is to associate each smell with a distinct memory. “The more experiences you have in your life, the more memories you create, and that’s really how you remember these raw materials when you first start studying, because it reminds you of your grandmother or a flower shop or a bakery or a certain gum,” Wilson tells Mental Floss. (The link between smell and memory has actually been proven by science—one 2018 study by neurobiologists at the University of Toronto revealed that the brain not only stores information about certain scents, but also memories of when and where you first encountered them.)

2. Having a good sense of smell isn't enough to make a good perfumer.

Many perfumers have a heightened sense of smell. Jersey City-based perfumer Christopher Brosius, who founded the rebellious fragrance brand CB I Hate Perfume (a reference to his distaste for most commercial fragrances) is one of them. He realized just how strong his nose was while working briefly as a New York City cab driver—he had to roll the window down every time an “offensive” perfume wafted in his direction and made his stomach churn.

However, many aspiring perfumers mistakenly believe that a “good nose” will get them far. “That’s like saying that if you have 20/20 vision you’re the next Picasso,” Brosius tells Mental Floss. “A keen nose is very useful, but at the end of the day I have met perfumers who were extremely talented who didn’t smell anything more sharply than anybody else. They just had the capacity to think in a different way about what they were doing with scent and combining it in unique and interesting ways.” More important than a good sense of smell is creativity, a natural talent for recognizing scents that work well together, and the “dedication to building a very particular base of knowledge and skill,” Brosius says.

3. France's Givaudan Perfumery School is the goal for many would-be top perfumers.

Jodi Wilson picks roses
Jodi Wilson picks roses for distillation while studying at the Roure Perfumery School (now called the Givaudan Perfumery School) in Grasse, France, during the 1991-92 academic year.
Courtesy of Jodi Wilson

Like many professional perfumers, Wilson was educated at what's now the Givaudan Perfumery School in France. Founded in 1946, it only accepts one or two promising students each year out of thousands of applicants—and sometimes none at all, if that year’s crop of candidates don’t live up to the school’s high standards. Former director Jean Guichard has said he hand-selected students based on their personality, talent, and motivations. “The perfumer should be a mixture between a scientist and a poet,” Guichard told the BBC. “When I meet people, I know if they have talent or not. I don’t want to have people who say, ‘I’m going to be a perfumer because they make a lot of money.’ That doesn’t interest me at all.” (And speaking of pay, Wilson says the starting salary for entry-level perfumers is about $45,000, but perfumers in New York City tend to start off a bit higher. It's not unheard of for the world's top perfumers to make six figures.)

The now-four-year Givaudan program is rigorous, but students don’t make a single perfume until after graduation. First, students have to memorize about 1500 raw materials, Wilson says. Next, they learn how to build accords, which are the fragrance notes (like rose or jasmine) that form the heart of a perfume. They move on to perfume schemas (the “skeleton” of a fine fragrance, which contains 10 to 12 materials) and also learn about the culture and history of perfume. “It takes a long time to learn all of that, and that’s what you’re doing all day from 9 a.m. till 4 p.m. It’s intense,” Wilson says. If and when they graduate, they’ll have a job waiting for them at the Givaudan fragrance company, which is where they’ll learn how to make perfumes under the guidance of a seasoned professional.

4. perfume school isn’t the only way to break into the industry.

Mandy Aftel holding perfume blotters
Perfumer Mandy Aftel at work
By Foster Curry // Courtesy of Mandy Aftel

Brosius says “99.9 percent” of aspiring perfumers would benefit from attending a perfume school. However, he personally did things a little differently and learned the fundamentals of perfume-making by landing a job at Kiehl’s and completing the company’s in-house training program.

It’s even less common for a perfumer to be self-taught, but it’s not impossible. The latter camp includes Mandy Aftel, a perfumer in Berkeley, California, who dropped a fulfilling career in psychotherapy to pursue a budding passion for perfume-making. For information about natural materials, she turned to fragrance books from the early 1900s, before synthetic materials started to saturate the market. Now, her Aftelier Perfumes business uses hundreds of natural ingredients—no synthetics—to create unique fragrances, and she has a loyal clientele. Regardless of the career paths they took, all of the perfumers agreed that this career is “a continuous learning process,” as Aftel tells Mental Floss. Both Brosius and Wilson said it takes 20 to 25 years to truly master the art of perfume-making, and Aftel still calls herself a “beginner” after 30 years of working in this field.

5. Not all perfumers work with fine fragrances.

Fragrance is used in many different ways, some of which we encounter on a daily basis without realizing it. Some perfumers specialize in creating scents for “industrial application,” which could include anything from children’s toys to paint to fabric, Brosius says. In the case of toilet-bowl cleaners, cat litter, and asphalt, the goal is not necessarily to create a pleasant aroma; instead, the challenge is to mask an unpleasant one. However, many of the perfumers working on the industrial side have scientific backgrounds and tend to work for a chemical company rather than a perfume label, Wilson says.

6. Some of the materials perfumers work with are hazardous.

Some undiluted ingredients—such as cinnamon—can cause severe chemical burns if they get on one's skin. Brosius wears gloves and goggles while blending materials and says some ingredients in his studio come with a "do not open without authorization" label attached. He says, “We have a protocol here that if anything new comes in, it’s opened in specific parts of the building or even sometimes outside on the terrace so that we don’t have an accident where it’s like, ‘Oops I just spilled one single drop of aldehyde [an organic compound] and now the entire building is uninhabitable, although next week it will smell like ginger ale!”

7. They want you to know your aromatherapy lotion might not be made of rose, jasmine, or whatever the bottle claims it contains.

Labels can be deceptive. If you’re buying an “aromatherapy” lotion or shower gel that claims to have rose, sandalwood, or jasmine in it but costs $15, that’s a red flag. According to Wilson, these ingredients can cost many thousands of dollars per pound. Wilson says it’s far more likely that cheaper products contain just a drop or two of the natural oils advertised—for the sake of being able to list them on the label—plus a host of synthetic ingredients that mimic the smell.

8. They're not always working on fragrances they like.

Marketing is a huge part of the cost of the perfume, especially on the higher end; the perfume industry spent around $800 million on marketing in 2016, according to Bloomberg. “Ninety percent of the time, the cost of the juice in that bottle is fractional,” Brosius says.

Marketing demands are also one reason why perfumers don't always get to follow their nose—and their creativity. “Most perfumers who work at large houses are not so happy with their job all the time,” Brosius says. “For every fine fragrance they get to work on, they’re compelled to work on a ton of crap fragrances as well. Much of it is entirely dependent on the whim of the marketing company.”

Companies are also more risk-averse, Wilson says—and the perfumes themselves now aren’t always built to last. “It used to be that a ‘classic’ was considered to last for 20 years—so your Chanel 5 and things of that nature,” Wilson says. “Now, it’s very rare to have a perfume that stays around for even 10 years.”

9. The smell of puppies is impossible to replicate—but perfumers are trying.

A bottle of Soaked Earth accord from CB I Hate Perfume
Kevin O'Mara, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Brosius has taken on some ambitious projects over the years, including fragrances imitating the smells of snow and wet earth, but some scents are harder to capture than others. That’s because the aroma chemicals needed to replicate certain smells haven't been created yet. This can be said of gasoline, champagne and certain wines, and some animal smells. “Particularly with puppies and kittens, the molecules needed to accurately reproduce those smells don’t exist in the perfumer’s palette. You can’t solvent extract puppies and kittens for their smell," Brosius says, describing a method that involves applying a chemical solvent to a raw material—such as a flower—to extract its aroma.

However, he’s had success creating "a context that’s so strong that people are convinced that they’re smelling something that isn’t there," he says. For instance, his roast beef fragrance doesn’t contain roast beef or anything like it, but it does contain notes of parsley and black pepper. That scent in particular, and a few others like it, aren't meant to be worn on the body. Brosius says some of his fragrances are more like modern-day "smelling salts," where the goal is to revive you, in a sense, by relieving stress. "All you have to do is open the bottle, breathe in, and your system will automatically reset to calm," he says.

10. Perfumers sometimes work with whale poop.

A small bowl with ambergris in it
Peter Kaminski, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Perfume-makers work with some unusual ingredients, and ambergris is certainly at the top of the list. This rock-like material comes from the excrement of sperm whales and occasionally washes up on shore. Aftel is fortunate enough to have some on display at the olfactory history museum she operates, called the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents. To convert the solid mass of crushed up squid and cuttlefish bits into an aromatic oil, she had to mash it up with a mortar and pestle, then add alcohol, heat it, and let it age. So what does it smell like in liquid form? “Heaven,” Aftel says. “It’s just ambery and shimmery. It’s a miracle of transformation.” Besides, Herman Melville mentioned it in Moby Dick and it used to be a 17th-century ice cream flavor, so you know it has to be good.

11. They keep wool nearby to combat nose fatigue.

Wool is the olfactory equivalent of eating sorbet in between courses. If you’re smelling the same scent for a prolonged period of time, or sniffing too many perfumes in a row, your odor receptors will habituate and stop sending those signals to your brain. This is officially called olfactory fatigue, and it explains why you might stop noticing a smell after a couple of minutes.

“If you smell a lot of scented materials, a lot of times your nose will just kind of conk out,” Aftel says. She keeps some wool nearby to help reset her sense of smell, and three big whiffs does the trick. So why does this work? Aftel says one theory is that the lanolin in wool absorbs and neutralizes odors, giving the brain a rest from sensory overload. As for those coffee beans you might see in some perfume shops? Those "definitely don't work," Aftel says.

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