One morning in Melbourne in March 1984, a crowd gathered around Keith Haring. One of New York City’s most prolific – and soon to be iconic – street artists had chosen Collingwood Technical School as the location for his latest large-scale work.

More than 35 years on, the Johnston Street mural is one of only 31 surviving Haring murals worldwide (and one of just three that have not been significantly over-painted or retouched). It’s withstood environmental damage, vandalism (a piece of the mural was stolen but later returned anonymously), and generations of drunken small-bladder owners in need of relief after a gig at The Tote. It has a heritage listing, and is considered one of the best (and most intact) examples of Haring’s public works anywhere in the world.

Many of the artist’s best-known motifs – from his borderline-hieroglyphic dancing figures to his ominous half-animal, half-machine monsters – can be found here. Even Haring’s iconic baby figure makes an appearance, right down the bottom.

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The mural’s been hidden behind protective hoarding since 2017, but the construction covering was removed in December last year to coincide with the near-completion of the Collingwood Arts Precinct, which now occupies the site. The reveal also lines up nicely with the launch of Keith Haring | Jean Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines, the NGV’s blockbuster summer exhibition exploring the lives and careers of the contemporaries who dominated New York City’s East Village art scene in the ’80s.

Haring’s frequent trips abroad were just as momentous. His Melbourne visit was a turning point for the city’s street art and graffiti scene, which was still finding its feet at the time.

“He only visited for a month, but he had a massive impact on the cultural scene here,” says Meg Slater, an assistant curator at the NGV who helped put Crossing Lines together.

“Throughout this show we’ve had people send through images of graffiti or street art that they took at the time that were quite Haring-esque,” Slater says. “They were saying things like, ‘I took this on my camera in 1985 – is there a chance it was by Haring?’

“In actual fact, the more likely answer is that it was probably done by someone who was very influenced by what they saw when Haring was here.”

It’s sadly ironic that a mural that helped Melbourne to become a global capital for street art is itself now at risk of being defaced. But according to Caroline Kyi, a conservator who’s worked on-and-off on restoring and preserving the Collingwood mural since the ’90s, when you’re returning a public artwork to its neighbourhood, that just comes with the territory.

“Sometimes you feel like you’re tending to a grave,” says Kyi, before adding that Haring would’ve understood the risks. “That’s the trade-off for people who work in public spaces … people respond to the mural in different ways. And they’ll continue to do so.”

For Kyi, the way to ensure the mural’s longevity is by keeping the community involved, and encouraging locals to call out any mistreatment. And Haring always intended for the mural to belong to the neighbourhood.

It’s an artwork we’re lucky to have. But as with all street art, it’s hard to say how long it’ll be around for the public to enjoy. Regardless, the legacy created here by one of the art world’s most exciting talents one day in 1984 will be felt for years to come.

“There’s a good chance that we can keep it there for a long time,” says Kyi. “And more importantly, the lessons we learn from the conservation of the mural can be used for new and emerging important murals around Melbourne.”

The Keith Haring mural is at 35 Johnston Street, Collingwood.