Haring achieved his first public attention with chalk drawings in the subways of New York (see public art). These were his first recognized pieces of pop art. The exhibitions were filmed by the photographer Tseng Kwong Chi. Around this time, "The Radiant Baby" became his symbol. His bold lines, vivid colors, and active figures carry strong messages of life and unity. Starting in 1980, he organized exhibitions in Club 57. He participated in the Times Square Exhibition and drew, for the first time, animals and human faces. In 1981 he sketched his first chalk drawings on black paper and painted plastic, metal andfound objects.
Haring contributed to the New York New Wave display in 1981 and in 1982, he had his first exclusive exhibition in the Tony Shafrazi Gallery. That same year, Haring took part in Documenta 7 in Kassel, Germany. By 1982, he established friendships with fellow emerging artists Futura 2000, Kenny Scharf,Madonna and Jean-Michel Basquiat. That same year he took part in Public Art Fund's "Messages to the Public" in which he created work for a Spectacolor Board in Times Square. He took part in the Whitney Biennial in 1983, as well as in the São Paulo Biennial. He got to know Andy Warhol, who was the theme of several of Haring's pieces including "Andy Mouse." His friendship with Warhol would prove to be a decisive element in his eventual success, particularly after their deaths.
In December 2007, an area of the American Textile Building in the TriBeCa neighborhood of New York City was discovered to contain a painting of Haring's from 1979.