Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Painted City

Dutch artist Dre Urhahn talks about his North Philly Mural Arts project and the power of art to transform a community.

North Philadelphia gained a couple of unique residents this year when acclaimed Dutch painting duo Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn, otherwise known as Haas and Hahn, took residence near the intersection of Huntingdon Street and Germantown Avenue as part of an extensive, innovative Mural Arts of Philadelphia community painting effort. The project, titled Philly Painting, has aimed to colorfully decorate several blocks of the surrounding neighborhood over a half year span and is due to be completed within the next month or so. It embodies a mix of art, architecture, and community engagement, and has captured the curiosity of locals as well as people around the world.

Designer in Exile went on location with Mr. Urhahn last month for a brief but compelling chat. Check it out, you'll see there is much more than meets the eye in putting up a neighborhood mural project.

Tell us a little about what you have going here with this mural project.

We started with a base group of six people, which was extended to seven, with the addition of some young people from DHS (the Department of Human Services). And then every Monday we will have eight people come in to help from Restorative Justice, which is a prison release program. Mural Arts has all of these different programs that has given people the opportunity to work with us. But there's actually only six people who are working with us throughout on the whole project.

A dose of color for North Philly.
We've been working with a lot of people who, for the most part, haven't painted before, so in the beginning there was a lot of learning of how to paint, learning how to make a straight line, and understanding the ways these designs are applied. But now people are more confident in their work, so we're happy we can move along.

The idea is that we move from Huntingdon Street to Oakdale, Lehigh, Cambria - all the facades are being painted. At first we were to do only the fronts, and then we went back to the people who are funding this and made a case of painting around the corners. That way we can get a little deeper into the neighborhood and we can get more like a three dimensional sight. But we started here on these four buildings.

You first went around and took photos of the area. Explain how that helped the project, and how you've been able to interact with the community.

So yes, we went around North Philadelphia and took photos of all different types of things - of logos, of theaters, of houses, a lot of things that really represented the city.

We worked with the various store owners to make sure the colors were agreeable. We made different combinations of swatches. Each store owner got their own set of swatches to choose from. And you know, everybody has their own idea about colors. The challenge was to make their colors work well together so that they fit with each other.

Like the way neighbors need to fit with each other?

Right. Yes.

So we had a wide color palette to work with, and we had to come up with some sort of tool kit that we could show the people, and that was not too difficult to apply for the people who were doing the painting.

It gave people the opportunity to show their feelings about the colors and the lines. For instance, (with) some buildings we didn't use too many horizontal lines because the buildings were very long and we wanted to break that up. And then in some (other) cases we used more horizontal lines to connect a group of buildings next to each other to make it look like one stretch. So we can play with the architecture and forms of the buildings a little bit.

Colors were ultimately decided by store owners.
Utilities and other obstacles posed challenges.

And it's interesting because there's always a couple people who come out and say 'I don't like that kind of thing'. So you ask them to try it themselves, and then they get very positive. It's funny how this brings a lot of different reactions from people. Most of the time we get compliments about how it looks. We get a lot of compliments out on the street.

There's a lot of things you realize once you get going with a project like this. You realize that there are some buildings that have not received a lot of attention but might be monumental. So what do you do in that case? Is it ethically correct, morally correct to paint over them? Do you repair them, or leave them in their original state? We're a painting project, so we can't afford to rebuild the neighborhood, but we do find it important that we leave some sort of quality behind. We hired a handyman to fix the buildings, to repair corners, to replace boards. We had to come up with a lot routes around things to get this done.

You've talked previously about the power of art to transform a neighborhood. How is that so, and how does that notion apply to this project?

I don't know if art itself can necessarily transform a neighborhood, but it's one of the easiest ways to draw attention, to get people to come to your neighborhood, to get energy and start something positive, because we don't have to rebuild. And although it's still a big operation, you do it with a small team. With a lot of paint, with a lot of patience, you can change the entire face of the neighborhood.

But it's what we learn from the people who get involved that is the most significant thing. And to document this experience, to show it in the media is very important. Because many people are watching these events - not just people who pass through the streets, but people who study cities and neighborhoods.

Dre Urhahn
I come from a background of urbanism and architecture. Having spent time in Brazil and now here, it's really interesting finding out more about how neighborhoods function. It's shocking to see how little understanding there is for neighborhoods from a planning point of view, and that cities often don't know or don't care what is going on.

If you look at places that have changed from gentrification, you (might) say that the neighborhoods have changed for the better. But the inhabitants who lived there would often not say that because either they had to move or they can't afford to pay their rent any more and had to leave. The whole part of a city changes without unity, and it's called 'progress'. I think now people are learning that that's not progress, that you have to change your neighborhoods without changing the people that live there.

Very thoughtful insights. Thank you for taking time from your busy afternoon to share them with us.

Thank you for coming out.

Interview by Anne Johnson. Edited by D.A. DeMers.

More info on this project can be found at www.muralarts.org. Up next, a fascinating photo essay from our recent visit back to Philly's historic Eastern State Penitentiary. Plus, lost cities - the struggles of historic preservation in urban America.

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  1. What a cool project! And nice interview too. It would be interesting to see more pictures. I suppose you'll be able to explore the whole thing on Google maps at some point. But driving around and seeing it in person would be even better.

  2. Cool indeed. And I believe Mural Arts already has some sort of tour set up to see the work. Check out www.muralarts.org

  3. Amazing transformation of a rather dull urban landscape. Wish this could happen in Chicago. I'm sure some one must of conducted some research on the psychological effects of vibrant color on the psych. Cool pastels to calm the atmosphere and vibrant reds and oranges to shake things up. I saw simular use of color on buildings in the caribbean and Brazil and wondered if the people living there are more prone to happiness! This Might be the antidepressant urban areas need!