Dre Urhahn: How Can Public Art Projects Transform Rough Neighborhoods?

Nov 10, 2017

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode How Art Changes Us.

About Dre Urhahn's TED Talk

Artists Dre Urhahn and Jeroen Koolhaas strive to change perceptions of "bad neighborhoods" by arming locals with paintbrushes and a vision: to turn their neighborhoods into open-air art galleries.

About Dre Urhahn

Dre Urhahn and his friend and partner Jeroen Koolhaas make up the art duo Haas&Hahn. From North Philly to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, they collaborate with locals in tough neighborhoods around the world to create striking public art projects.

As part of their Favela Painting Foundation, the Dutch artists crowdsourced more than $100,000 with the hope of bringing their bright, cheerful paintings to the entire hillside of Villa Cruzeiro favela in Rio — training young painters in the process.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

So can you tell me about the - how the favela painting project started. Like, did you guys just go to Rio and - you know, to sort of check them out?

DRE URHAHN: No, it was actually different. Jeroen - he had won a competition to make a documentary for MTV.

RAZ: This is Dre Urhahn. And Dre, along with his friend and fellow artist Jeroen Koolhaas, who he just mentioned, made that documentary. It was about Brazilian hip-hop music in the favelas of Rio. But their time in Brazil led to another art project, something completely different.

URHAHN: We - when we were making the documentary and we were just spending a lot of time with the people, there was this constant return of this word image, that people in society around the slums - they had this certain image of what the favela was like and what the people from the favela were like. And we were also thinking like, could we also make some sort of a statement?

And a visual statement was the thing that came to mind immediately. Like, could we just make something that looks nice so that if people look at the place and they already know that they are going to dislike it, and all of a sudden, they're confronted with something beautiful? And that would kind of change their minds.

RAZ: And so the idea they came up with was to create a giant mural spread across many, many buildings so that you would have to look at it from a distance to see the entire thing, and they decided to stay in Brazil and give it a shot.

URHAHN: I think our roles change a lot when we travel. Like, we - sometimes we arrive somewhere as a documentary maker, and we leave as a socially responsible painter.

RAZ: Here's Dre and Jeroen on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

JEROEN KOOLHAAS: We picked three houses in the center of the community, and we start here. We made a few designs, and everybody liked this design of a boy flying a kite the best. So we started painting, and the first thing we did was to paint everything blue. And we thought that looked already pretty good. But they hated it. The people who lived there really hated it. They said, what did you do? You painted our house in exactly the same color as the police station.

(LAUGHTER)

KOOLHAAS: In a favela, that is not a good thing - also the same color as the prison cell. So we quickly went ahead and we painted the boy. But still, it wasn't good because the little kids started coming up to us and they said, you know, it's a boy flying a kite, but where is his kite? We said, it's art. You know, you have to imagine the kite.

(LAUGHTER)

KOOLHAAS: And they said, no, no, no, we want to see the kite. So we quickly installed a kite way up high on the hill so that you could see the boy flying the kite, and you could actually see a kite. So the local news started writing about it, which is great. And then even the Guardian wrote about it - "Notorious Slum Becomes Open-Air Gallery."

RAZ: I mean, the perception of favelas is that these are unwelcoming, dangerous, ugly places. And part of what you were trying to do is to change that perception by actually sort of overlaying this beautiful piece of artwork over the favela. It was almost forcing people to think about it in a different way.

URHAHN: Totally. It's totally an invitation to think about the people that live there in a different way. And I remember very well that the participants in our project - I mean, we worked with, like, big groups of people that are from the neighborhood, so it's not just us. But there was a piece written in the newspaper, and they talked about the inhabitants as artists and not as criminals, and that was, like, a game-changer for them. And they said, look, they're writing about us as people.

I think that really got to us. And again, this wasn't really, like, a super predetermined plan. This is something that we stumbled upon. Like, this happened, and then we thought, oh, my God, if this happened in - on the small scale, let's build it out. Let's make it 10 times bigger and see if it happens again.

RAZ: So that's what Dre and Jeroen did. They went to another favela in Rio and started on another large-scale art project.

URHAHN: The second painting we made was actually not on a wall, but it was on a complete street. And we painted this giant river of, like, Japanese koi carp. It was quite insane. It's, like, the most unexpected thing.

RAZ: And then they moved on to another neighborhood.

URHAHN: The Santa Marta project was quite simple. At the end, and it just looks like a very simple, happy explosion of colors. That's all I can describe it as. It goes over, like, 27 different houses.

RAZ: And as their art projects attracted more attention, they started to get requests from all over the world.

URHAHN: Yeah, it's - for the last 10 years, we've been just running around, painting.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

URHAHN: So then we receive an unexpected phone call from the Philadelphia Mural Arts program, and they had this question, if this would actually work in North Philly, which is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the United States. So we immediately said yes. The project took almost two years to complete, and we made individual designs for every single house on the avenue that we painted.

And we made these designs together with the local store owners, the building owners and a team of about a dozen young men and women that were hired, and then they were trained as painters. And together, they transformed their own neighborhood - the whole street - into a giant patchwork of color.

RAZ: It's amazing when you see images of it from above, like a drone image, or from far away. I mean, I don't know what it looked like before, but you can imagine that it did have a pretty big impact on that neighborhood, on that community.

URHAHN: Yeah, totally, and I'm - I love to follow - like, my Instagram is mostly people from the different projects where we worked and lived. And I'm following a lot of the people that live in Philadelphia, and it's great to see that the painting still has, like, a big impact on their images - like, the pictures that they take or music videos that they make. There's people that do dance shows in front of them or clothing designers come out and do their fashion shows there. And it just becomes, like, a thing. Like, their neighborhood is the colorful neighborhood.

RAZ: Do you think that we - sometimes when we think about transforming neighborhoods or communities or doing big public projects, we don't just consider something as simple as beauty, right? Like, beauty can really transform - psychologically transform how people think about their own spaces and places.

URHAHN: I think that there's two qualities. It's beauty and it's attention. If you do a two-year project, you show two year worth of full-time love and dedication to a neighborhood and its people, and it's something that people take very, very serious. A good example was when we arrived, we put posters everywhere.

We flyered (ph) and we had people going door to door, asking the merchants to come together for a meeting. And it was only three people that came out. Like, there's always these three people, right? And we did the same thing after the project was done, and we needed to change, like, the venue because it couldn't hold all the people, and everybody came together. And I mean, I'm not saying it changed the world, but, I mean, that shows something.

RAZ: Dre Urhahn - you can find out more about Dre and Jeroen's projects at their website favelapainting.com. And you can watch their talk at ted.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.