It all began one February night in 1989. César de Melero was DJing in the Ars Studio club in Barcelona when someone told him that the artist Keith Haring was outside but the doorman wouldn’t let him in.
“The place was packed, so I put on a record and pushed through the crowd,” De Melero told the Guardian. “And there he was with his saintly, innocent face and I told the doorman to let him in and I said to the boss: ‘Champagne for Keith Haring.’”
And so began a brief but intense friendship during which Haring painted a mural inside De Melero’s DJ cabin. The club closed in 1992, since when it has been a billiard hall. The Haring mural remains, unspoilt and half-forgotten, just where he painted it.
Now the owners plan to demolish the building to build a care home for elderly people and the destination of the Haring is up for grabs.
“If it wasn’t for me, it would have disappeared under a coat of paint,” said Gabriel Carral, who runs the billiard hall.
Carral claims there is a clause in the rental agreement that gives him the right to the art on the walls. He said the Haring has been valued at €80,000 and that the Keith Haring foundation is willing to pay for the complicated business of removing it. Carral said he hasn’t decided whether to sell or donate it to the foundation.
To De Melero, all this talk is unseemly and out of keeping with the spirit of openness and generosity with which the mural was painted. He was a fan of Haring’s work, which was part of the graffiti and acid house music subculture of the time.
“I liked him before I met him and even more when I did,” he said. “He was such a normal and likable person, not at all vain.”
That night in the club he showed the artist a Frisbee that was allegedly official Haring merchandise but the artist said he’d never authorised it. So he painted it with some of his trademark figures and wrote: “This is a real Keith Haring painted on a fake.”
Haring was in Barcelona at the behest of Montse Guillén, a chef at the Internacional Tapas Bar & Restaurant in the Tribeca district of Manhattan. The bar was a cool hangout in the 1980s, frequented by artists such as Andy Warhol and Haring, as well as musicians, among them Grace Jones and David Byrne.
The morning after that night in the club, De Melero, who is now a top DJ in Ibiza, accompanied Haring to the Plaça Salvador Seguí in el Raval, a known hangout for junkies and prostitutes, where Haring painted a mural on a building that was scheduled for demolition.
The mural depicts a snake devouring all before it, under the slogan: “Together we can stop Aids.” Haring died a year later of Aids-related complications.
De Melero, who videoed the event, wrote the slogan in Spanish, Todos juntos podemos parar el sida, on a piece of paper for Haring to copy.
“The very next day people had drawn penises, graffiti, all sorts of crap on the mural,” De Melero recalls. “No one cared that it was a Keith Haring, people wanted food or drugs or whatever. He knew that when he painted it, that it was all going to be demolished anyway. He didn’t have a problem with that.”
A copy of the original has been preserved at MACBA, the city’s contemporary art museum.
That night, Haring reappeared at the Ars Studio and asked De Melero to move his records away from the wall because he wanted to paint. With the same red paint with which he painted the mural earlier that day, he depicted a figure apparently vibrating to the music.
“The head is a flower, which is a reference to flower power, and the A is for acid house,” De Melero explained.
“This painting should stay where it is. First it was in a night club, then a billiard hall, now a care home. Why not?”
A spokesperson for Barcelona council said: “We have guaranteed the mural’s protection under the special urban plan and have asked the Generalitat [Catalan regional government] to declare it as part of our cultural heritage.”
De Melero disparages talk of the painting’s economic value. “Haring didn’t paint it for money, he did it as a mark of friendship, and out of love for the club and for Barcelona,” he said, adding that no one can claim ownership of the work.
As Haring himself once remarked: “Art is for everybody.”