Keith Haring was born on May 4, 1958, in Reading, Pennsylvania. As a child, Haring was fascinated by the cartoon art of Walt Disney and Charles Schultz and the illustrations of Dr. Seuss. He spent many hours drawing with his father, an engineer whose hobby was cartooning. After graduating from high school in 1976, Haring briefly attended the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh, dropping out after two semesters. In 1978, he decided to return to school, moving to New York City to enroll at the School of Visual Arts.

When Haring arrived in New York, it was home to a thriving underground art scene. Haring befriended fellow emerging artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf, who shared his interest in the colorful and transgressive graffiti art of the city's streets. In addition to being impressed by the innovation and energy of his contemporaries, Haring was also inspired by the work of Jean Dubuffet, Pierre Alechinsky, William Burroughs, Brion Gysin and Robert Henri’s manifesto The Art Spirit, which asserted the fundamental independence of the artist. With these influences Haring was able to push his own youthful impulses toward a singular kind of graphic expression based on the primacy of the line. Haring and other artists organized exhibitions at downtown nightclubs and other alternative locations, where art, music and fashion all came together in a dynamic mix.

Beyond the clubs, Haring began using the city as his canvas. His graffiti drawings attracted the attention of New York commuters, as well as the city authorities: Haring was arrested for vandalism on numerous occasions.

He had his first solo exhibition in 1981, at the Westbeth Painters Space in Manhattan. In 1982 he began to show his art at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery, which would represent him for the rest of his career. Throughout the 1980s, Haring's work was exhibited widely both within the United States and internationally. He also collaborated with other artists and performers, including Andy Warhol, Grace Jones and William S. Burroughs.

In 1988, Haring was diagnosed with AIDS. The following year, he created the Keith Haring Foundation to support children's programs and organizations dedicated to raising AIDS awareness.

Keith Haring died in New York on February 16, 1990, of AIDS-related complications at age 31.