Ghetto fabulous: the murals of Haas & Hahn.
From Rio to Philadelphia, the Dutch artists Haas & Hahn are regenerating some of the world’s worst slums.
Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn are Dutch artists who have made a name for themselves by living and working in some of the world’s most violent places. Between 2007 and 2010, ‘Haas & Hahn’ spent 18 months in the favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro, neighbourhoods run by drug gangs and their ‘soldados’, small boys who teeter under the weight of machine guns.
It is unusual to have to ask permission of a drug lord before you can start painting, but in Vila Cruzeiro – generally considered one of Rio’s most dangerous favelas – this is what Haas & Hahn had to do. In 2002 Tim Lopes, an investigative journalist and producer for the Brazilian television network Rede Globo, took a camera into the same favela without clearing it first. His burnt body was found, camera alongside, nine days later.
In 2011 Haas & Hahn moved to another ghetto: Germantown, north Philadelphia, in the United States, where the poverty level is 167 per cent higher than the state average and drugs are a way of life. They lived there for 18 months.
Another unusual feature of Haas & Hahn is the size of their art. They are often described as muralists, but that isn’t quite accurate. Muralists typically paint a wall. Haas & Hahn paint whole buildings, squares, even a street. In Vila Cruzeiro they painted the ugly concrete slabs of a 2,000m drainage ditch with a picture of a stream filled with koi carp. And in nearby Santa Marta they painted the entire run-down square (34 houses) of Praça Cantão in an explosion of candy-coloured rays.
Their most recent work in Philadelphia is even bigger, even jazzier. Philly Painting is two blocks (50 shopfronts) of audacious abstract stripes. It recalled, the Philadelphia Inquirer said, the grid paintings of the artist Piet Mondrian, albeit moving to a ‘hip-hop beat’. Haas & Hahn like this description partly because Mondrian is a compatriot, and because they are hip-hop enthusiasts.
Painting patterns on houses when the entire neighbourhood is on the verge of collapse might seem pointless. But they argue that it can be an impetus for change. ‘Our projects bring hope, positivity, beauty, job opportunities and stability,’ Urhahn says. ‘You know, we are actually offering quite a nice package.’
I meet Urhahn in a café in Berlin. At 39 he is dressed in urban street gear – hoodie, trainers, jeans, chunky jewellery – and tells me he has an enormous tattoo of a dragon on his back. (He flew his tattooist from Amsterdam to Vila Cruzeiro to help design the koi carp.) He comes over as a genial and articulate man who likes to talk. He has no art training, and so he has adopted the role of the talker who manages the projects. Koolhaas is the artist and the introvert.
‘You will find him on the street painting, and you will find me on the street talking to people about the design,’ Urhahn says. It is fitting then, that Urhahn is here while Koolhaas is in Italy designing projections for a Prada fashion show. The fashion house is a client of Oma (the Office for Metropolitan Architecture), the firm founded by Jeroen’s uncle, the celebrated architect Rem Koolhaas, for whom Jeroen is a freelance graphic designer. (He is also an illustrator for the New Yorker magazine.)
Urhahn is in Berlin for the launch of Challenge the Obvious, a documentary about the favela painting. Sponsored by Hub footwear, the Dutch-based shoe company, the documentary is to be screened at this evening’s opening of a new Hub store in the city. Haas & Hahn have also designed a shoe for Hub inspired by the Philadelphia project: the Philly Painting shoe – a limited-edition, hi-top trainer in dark maroon (the original colour of the majority of the buildings in Germantown).
Haas & Hahn are clearly in demand. They speak at symposiums on the rejuvenating effect of their art. They had an exhibition at Storefront for Art and Architecture, in New York, and in 2011 Brazilian Vogue declared Santa Marta one of the 10 most colourful places in the world. People ask for their help.
‘You can imagine how many emails we get,’ Urhahn says. ‘Hey, why don’t you come to Nigeria? Haiti?’ And yet the careers of Urhahn and Koolhaas are puzzling to some. Critics acknowledge the visual impact of the designs but question its ability to transform. After all, they say, Santa Marta and Germantown are still poor.
‘It’s naive to think that painting over this depopulated blightscape can do anything more than mask the avenue’s failure,’ the Philadelphia Inquirer said of Philly Painting. ‘It’s a feel-good strategy being passed off as an economic-development one.’
‘You could write a very thick book about the problems in north Philadelphia,’ Urhahn agrees, listing closed factories, poor education, graffiti, broken windows – this is an area buffeted by poverty and racism.
‘Obviously a painting project is not going to solve that,’ he continues. ‘Wages haven’t risen and the number of jobs hasn’t risen, but the attitude has risen, ever so slightly. People take a bit more pride and care in their street. It’s not just that it looks nicer, it’s also that they finally feel some attention has been given to their neighbourhood.’
‘The inhabitants of Vila Cruzeiro feel valued by the artwork of Jeroen and Dre in the favela,’ Nanko van Buuren, the creator and executive director of Ibiss (Brazilian Institute of Innovations of Social Health), a non-profit organisation that works in the favelas, says. Van Buuren met Koolhaas when he was a young student on an exchange with Ibiss. Koolhaas and Urhahn are eternally grateful to van Buuren as he introduced them to the drug lords and their soldados in Vila Cruzeiro to ‘guarantee their safety’. And van Buuren, in turn, is happy to rave about the artists he calls ‘two crazy Dutch men’ who gave the ‘inhabitants a kind of self-esteem’. He says the murals have become something of a tourist attraction, and Ibiss is even setting up a tourist agency, L-tours, which will be run by ex-soldados. ‘This will bring some extra income.‘
Haas & Hahn became a team almost by accident. Urhahn grew up in Amsterdam, the son of an urban planner and an artist; Koolhaas in Rotterdam, the son of a professor at the Delft University of Technology and an art historian. Urhahn went on to study Chinese language and culture at Leiden University but left after two years to work variously as a journalist, copy writer, art director and founder of a television production company. Koolhaas studied graphic design at the Design Academy Eindhoven and then worked as a freelance audio-visual designer and illustrator. It was hip-hop that brought them together.
‘Dre was organising hip-hop parties and I started designing the fliers,’ Koolhaas tells me, when we speak on the telephone. The partnership was cemented when Koolhaas was awarded €5,000 to make a documentary after winning a prize for his graduation film, a short animation. Having spent some time in São Paulo and Rio as part of a student exchange, Koolhaas proposed making a film about hip-hop in the favelas. He recruited Urhahn as an assistant. One day they were driving through Rio when they saw the favelas – unmissable in the city as the shacks cling to the steep hills. ‘I said, “Wow, imagine if you could paint that,’’’ Koolhaas remembers. ‘We liked coming up with crazy things to do and this one just stuck.’
At that point it was about the bravura of youth. The activism came later. ‘At first we just wanted to paint, but then our responsibilities changed,’ Koolhaas says. ‘Before you can work in a neighbourhood which has had 30 years of decline, downfall and broken promises there is more talking to be done than painting,’ Urhahn explains. ‘The neighbourhood has to respect you, and that is not something you can buy or force. You really have to earn that by moving there, shopping there, partying there and having your birthday there.’ He even proposed to his girlfriend, an artist, in a bar in Germantown.
But there are downsides. Since 2006 they have been living a hand-to-mouth existence. Dulux provided €100,000 for the favela paints, and they managed to raise €25,000 themselves. But that barely covered accommodation and living costs. They paid themselves a salary for Philly Painting, which cost $500,000 (funded by a team of partners including $215,000 from the City of Philadelphia Commerce Department). But after buying 50 different colours of paint, and paying 12 full-time painters $12 an hour, life, Urhahn says, was still ‘low budget’.
Talking to Urhahn and Koolhaas provokes the question, ‘But for how long?’ How long can they go on working so intensely? How long can they carry on moving from country to country? They know they will have to change. ‘We have to be more business-like so we can manage financially,’ Koolhaas says. But for now they have big ideas driving them on. They are thinking of setting up a paint factory and they have been invited to the Caribbean to discuss a project.
‘The oil industry has closed down a factory,’ Urhahn says, ‘and a whole city on this Caribbean island is out of work.’ And with that he smiles, shakes my hand and is gone.
The above article by Sally Williams first published on telegraph.co.uk, Mar 2013.