Only a few months after he painted a mural of his quirky, high-color stick figures on the Berlin Wall in 1986, artist Keith Haring, the story goes, also created a mural on the side of the old Hartfield's Dress Shop on the southeast corner of Adams Street and Central Avenue in downtown Phoenix. And while many locals remember well the stunning 125-foot mural, no one seems to know what became of it.
In what's now a parking lot just west of Hanny's, the "comic caveman" mural was created while Haring was in Phoenix leading a drawing workshop at Phoenix Art Museum. He pitched a mural to city planners, who hooked up Haring with art students from South Mountain High School. The original plan was that Haring would sketch his traditionally playful outlined figures, and the students would paint them in. But when the students began improvising — adding images of their own and incorporating their names into the design — Haring encouraged them to continue. The result was a typically Haring-esque diorama of vibrant urban hieroglyphics, a bright spot on an otherwise dreary corner.
At a time when there were few other murals in our still-developing downtown, the prominent Haring display was a welcome addition. City Councilmember Mary Rose Wilcox announced plans to sell the Haring piece to fund a city mural project in 1991, but Haring shut down the sale, pointing out that his contract with the city stipulated that the mural be taken down and destroyed after one year. Having been graffitied, exposed to brutal weather, and otherwise abused, the mural — painted on untreated composition board attached to the side of the Hartfield's building — was a mess. Not long after Haring's death from AIDS-related illness in 1989, city of Phoenix workers tore it down and had it hauled to the dump, where it reportedly was destroyed.
Or was it? Rumors abound, nearly 30 years later, about what really became of this large — and now valuable, if it still exists — work of art. One story places at least part of the mural at the Faux Café, a long-gone art gallery/coffee shop right around the corner from the mural's original home. Another story goes that the late Bruce Kurtz, former curator of 20th-century art for the Phoenix Art Museum, had arranged to have the mural shipped to his home in Paris. (Impossible — Kurtz went public on several occasions about the fact that the Haring mural was "valueless" because it was done in collaboration with kids, unsigned by Haring, and in terrible shape.)
We may never know what became of the mural, but in the meantime, we can watch its creation, via a video that South Mountain High School art instructor Mike Prepsky made at the time and keep our fingers crossed that at least some of its 125 feet will turn up one day in the future.