ICONS: Polaroid-Haring-C-Note, Street Art Meets Prison Art

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Mike Lloyd // Mike Lloyd Studio 

For Pride Month and this year's 50th anniversary of Hip Hop we look at what makes Street artist Keith Haring and Prison artist C-Note artivist icons.

Keith Haring and Donald "C-Note" Hooker are two of the most iconic artists of all time. Haring was a New York-based artist who rose to fame in the 1980s with his colorful, geometric figures. C-Note is a prison artist who has used his work to raise awareness about the plight of incarcerated people.


Both Haring and C-Note used their art to address social and political issues. Haring's work often dealt with themes of sexuality, AIDS, and poverty. C-Note's work often deals with themes of violence, addiction, and redemption.


Despite their different backgrounds, Haring and C-Note share a common connection to hip-hop culture. Both artists have used their work to communicate with a wide audience, and they both saw hip-hop as a powerful force for social change.


Keith Haring

Jack Mitchell // Getty Images


Keith Allen Haring was born in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1958. He studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, and after graduating in 1978, he began to create his signature graffiti art. Haring's work was often seen on subways, sidewalks, and other public spaces.


Haring's work was characterized by its simple, geometric figures and its use of bright colors. His most famous motifs included the "radiant baby," the "barking dog," and the "devil." Haring's work often dealt with themes of sexuality, AIDS, and poverty.


In addition to his street art, Haring also created a number of public murals and paintings. He also designed clothing, toys, and other merchandise. Haring's work was exhibited all over the world, and he became one of the most famous artists of his generation.


Haring died of AIDS-related complications in 1990 at the age of 31. His work continues to be celebrated today, and he is considered one of the most important artists of the 20th century.



Peter Merts, photographer 


C-Note, whose real name is Donald Oliver Hooker, was born in Los Angeles in 1965. He was incarcerated at the age of 31, and he has been in prison ever since.


While in prison, C-Note began to create art as a way to cope with his situation. His work often deals with themes of violence, addiction, and redemption. C-Note's art has been exhibited across the United States and Europe, and he has received numerous honors for his work.


C-Note is a powerful voice for the incarcerated community. His work challenges the stereotypes about people who are in prison, and it shows the humanity of those who are often forgotten. C-Note is an inspiration to people all over the world, and he is a testament to the power of art to change lives.

Keith Haring and Hip-Hop


Many of Haring's art pieces were influenced by hip-hop culture—graffiti art in the subway stations inspired Haring more than the art galleries. He began drawing his iconic figures—standing figure, barking dog, and crawling baby—and used radiating lines to show movement as well as other symbols. Many of his drawings were inspired by the movements of break dancers (Keith Haring Foundation, 2020).




There was incredibly raw energy in the air and the energy was called Hip-Hop. This Hip-Hop scene included rap music and deejays, who would be scratching, which meant moving the record back and forth so that it would be making a sort of electronic scratching noise. And it also included break dancing and spray graffiti, because the graffiti scene was really the visual equivalent to the music? Well I began incorporating all of this into the images I was making. Break dancing was real inspiration, seeing the kids spinning and twisting around on their heads. So my drawings began having figures spinning on their heads and twisting around."



One such iconic Hip Hop photograph was of a Run D.M.C photo shoot with Keith Haring for their My Adidas Tour in 1986. Haring also created the art cover for their single “Christmas in Hollis” (1987). Haring also used hip-hop music in his public art projects. For example, in 1983, he created a mural called "Crack Is Wack" in Times Square. The mural was accompanied by a sound system that played hip-hop music.

C-Note, The King of Prison Hip Hop


Known as the King of Prison Hip Hop for both his gritty literary and visual works, C-Note is a poet, playwright, performing artist, and award-winning visual artist. Despite having been incarcerated for over a quarter century, his art has reached a global audience. 


C-Note began writing poetry in his teens, and his early work was influenced by the hip hop and rap music of the time. While in prison, C-Note continued to write poetry. His epic poem Can't Black Lives Matter Too??? explores the historical injustices and prejudices suffered by various racial and ethnic groups, with a particular focus on the African American experience, including systemic racism, sexual violence, and civil rights violations. 


Through this journey, Can't Black Lives Matter Too??? makes an impassioned plea for empathy, recognition, and understanding, strongly advocating for the affirmation that Black Lives Matter, and alluding to historical events such as the Native American treaties, Chinese exclusion laws, WWII atrocities, mass lynchings, slavery, and modern acts of racial violence.



One of Hip Hop’s founding art forms, graffiti, was started in prison. I call my work Hip Hop because in the early days of Rap, rappers were called news reporters. The American mainstream press did not cover the plight of the inner city, so our stories reached the public through Rap. Photojournalism can show you what it looks like to be locked up, but only the artist can tell you what it feels like to be locked up, and it’s Hell. What mainstream media outlet is reporting these stories? With so many people in our communities locked up, predominantly for quality of life crimes, a real Hip Hop consciousness is right here in prison. So the next time you hear about the death nails of Hip Hop, tell’em nah, ‘Hip Hop ain’t dead; it went to prison. ‘”


C-Note is a powerful voice for those who are often voiceless. His art gives a platform to the marginalized and the oppressed. Activists in 2019 and 2021 used his 2017 Hurricane Harvey inspired artwork During the Flood to advocate for the evacuation of prisons in the path of Category 5 and 4 hurricanes Dorian and Ida.


Through his playwriting and acting skills, he inspired public-private funding for the first-in-the-nation prison re-entry project in Los Angeles that provides free housing, free college, and actual paid theatrical work with The Strindberg Laboratory. Started in 2016, the “BREAK IT TO MAKE IT (BITMI): Busting Barriers for the Incarcerated Project, Los Angeles, California," is still going strong today.


His 2018 Paintoem (painting + poem) Today We Are Sisters was a work about Pro-Life and Pro-Coice activist uniting to end the practice of forced sterilization of women in the California prison system, and to demand reparations. In 2021, Today We Are Sisters became a useful tool to inspire California lawmakers and its governor to pass a $7M reparations law for California women prisoners who were forcibly sterilized.

Haring, C-Note, and the World of Fashion


In 2019, C-Note worked with a fourth year fashion design student at the prestigious Columbus College of Art and Design, Makenzie Stiles, on her year-long fashion thesis for a fashion line called Mercy. It was the first time in the college's 144-year-old history that a fashion line was created using images from Prison art. 


2020 Covid health restrictions prevented C-Note and Stiles from making fashion show history by becoming the first fashion line in the history of the Catwalk to have models walk the runway in clothes with Prison art.


In 2023, the German fashion house Hugo Boss released a new collection for Gay Pride Month. The BOSS Legends x Keith Haring was a collection in honor of Haring’s courage and commitment to social issues. According to the fashion house, "Keith Haring wasn’t just an artist; he embodied the ethos of a BOSS – living life on his own terms and fearlessly advocating against social injustices." 

ICONS: Polaroid-Haring-C-Note

Anna D. Smith // Anna D. Smith Fine Art and Real Estate Broker 


For Pride Month in 2021, Polaroid Corporation released a new product, the Polaroid x Keith Haring camera and film. Shortly thereafter in July, PBS began airing a six part series ICON: MUSIC THROUGH THE LENS that unveiled the exhilarating, revealing universe of concert photography.


C-Note, who watched the series from his prison cell, told founder Anna D. Smith of Anna D. Smith Fine Art and Real Estate Broker, who represents him in the art world, about the series and of its episode six's conversation of the resurgent use of Polaroid cameras and film.


This conversation inspired Smith to purchase a Polaroid camera from the once bankrupt and extinct American company. She chose the newly released Polaroid x Keith Haring camera and film.


In the fall of 2021, Smith and her brokerage firm, Anna D. Smith Fine Art and Real Estate Broker, funded and curated "Look Up!", Oct. 17 - Nov. 16. It was an outdoor solo art exhibition in response to Covid-19 health restrictions that prevented the public access to art viewings at galleries and museums. It featured C-Note's 2017, Incarceration Nation,America's premier work of art on mass incarceration, and made him the first prison artist to have their artwork on a billboard.


Standing on the front cab of a stranger's truck, Smith photographed the artist's billboard using a Polaroid x Keith Haring camera and film. The photo, now known as ICONS: Polaroid-Haring-C-Note is featured in the Wikipedia article, "Billboard," and in the ART IN CONTEXT article, "History of Polaroid – The Cultural Legacy."


Smith would use the camera and film to create other iconic works in photography combining the two legendary visual artists. 

Anna D. Smith // Anna D. Smith Fine Art and Real Estate Broker


One such photo depicts Matt, a Bay Area lawyer holding a C-Note #SayHerName protest sign in front of the Castro Theatre in San Francisco's legendary Castro District. The very depressing marquee of the theater, "CASTRO THEATRE 99 YEARS WE'LL BE BACK SOON," represented the disaster's effects Covid-19 health restrictions had on the theater industry.


Another such photograph depicts C-Note's unattended #SayHerName protest poster in front of the Keith Haring sculpture at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.

Anna D. Smith // Anna D. Smith Fine Art and Real Estate Broker


"The police were everywhere that day, watching the sculpture," says Smith. "There was a moment when they were all huddled up and not paying attention, and this allowed me to abut C-Note's #SayHerName protest poster at the base of the sculpture, and snap a picture."

C-Note on Haring

C-Note on Haring is a 2021, 12 in. by 9 in., Chalk on Black canvas, portrait drawing of Keith Haring wearing an NWA T-shirt, with Haring inspired graphic notations of a smiling sun, and a dancing man, with radiant lines. C-Note used triangles for his graphic creations, as a cryptic art lesson to would-be artists that basic geometric shapes are everywhere and can be used to create anything. His final cryptic note in the work is of Keith Haring's most famous iconography, Crawling baby, depicted in the lower left of the art piece C-Note on Haring.


A print of C-Note on Haring is featured in the lede image, and depicts Anna D. Smith at a photo shoot alongside a 36 in. by 27 in., canvas print of the artwork hanging on a studio wall. Both prints and the original, C-Note on Haring can be purchased from the firm, Anna D. Smith Fine Art and Real Estate Broker


Keith Haring and C-Note are two artists who have left a lasting legacy on the world of art. Their work is both visually striking and thought-provoking, and it continues to inspire people around the world. Both artists have a strong connection to hip-hop culture, and they use their work to communicate with a wide audience. Their work is a testament to the power of art to connect people from different backgrounds and to challenge the status quo.

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