If you’ve lived long enough you’ve probably seen a simple line drawing of a penis scrawled somewhere on a bathroom wall, or a building, or a textbook, or well, you get the idea. This is not out of the ordinary. However, there is a bathroom in the West Village that not only has this image in abundance, it has been preserved as a major work of contemporary art. This artwork is anything but ordinary.
May 1989 saw the creation of Keith Haring’s bathroom mural “Once Upon a Time”. He was 31 at the time and this was his last major mural before his untimely death in February 1990 of AIDS-related complications. The piece was created for “The Center Show,” a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, largely thought of as the start of the Gay Liberation and LGBT Rights movement. The Center Show called upon LGBT artists to create site-specific works of art in the building commonly called “The Center” (now called The Center: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center). Haring chose to create his provocative work in the second floor men’s bathroom.
The mural covers four interior walls and surrounds the viewer with Harings signature black-on-white line drawings of penises, fluids, babies, and groping figures all intertwined above the tiles of the bathroom stalls. “Once Upon a Time” was an homage to the more care-free days of bathroom sex before HIV and AIDS ravaged the gay community in New York and beyond. These are not the Haring images we are used to seeing on buttons, magnets, puzzles, and clothes; this is the private, sexual Haring come to life in a grandiose and unapologetic celebration of gay sexuality.
Unfortunately, time and the elements gradually took its toll on the mural. This was partly due to Haring’s not having primed the surface before painting and exposure to the elements from years of open window abuse. For a few years the bathroom was used as the Center’s meeting room until 2012, when funds were raised for a major renovation of the work. The mural was restored and opened to the public in 2015 along with other major works from the show by Leon Golub, Barbara Sandler, Kenny Scharf, George Whitman, and Martin Wong.
Since Haring’s works have sold at auction for up to $2.5 million it is quite possible that this is the most valuable bathroom in America. Luckily, you can see it for free. The Keith Haring Bathroom and other Center Show works are now open to the public during regular business hours at the Center.