Haas and Hahn are about to paint again. In 2015, they will return to the favelas of Rio de Janiero that had put their art on the map. More importantly, their vibrant neighborhood-enveloping murals had put the favela of Santa Marta on the map. With their projects the Dutch duo know perfectly well the virtuous impacts of painting and community engagement.
A couple of years ago, you could find Dre Urhahn (“Hahn,” opposite partner Jeroen Koolhaas), blending right in with working class North Philadelphia – he prefers tank tops, body tattoos, slicked-back hair, and cruising in a 30-year-old Buick. In fact that’s what he came around in to pick us up on a fateful August day in 2013.
Dre is regaling us with memories of Philly before we even start our trip north.
The Dutch boys had, a few months earlier, wrapped up the most extensive mural project in Philadelphia’s distinguished history. PHILLY PAINTING in an abstract compositional makeover of some three blocks of Germantown Avenue – a business corridor that not only has seen better days, but may not have seen many worse ones.
Snapped power lines dangle onto the sidewalk. A street cleaning program has just run out of funding. In North Philly the rarest commodity was hope. This was a tremendous distinction from Rio for Dre. “In Brazil, people were poor, but happy. They had dreams. Here, everyone was defeated. A mother would not let her little boy imagine a bright future – it was just a waste of time.” Gangs were the avenue to success, drugs the largest economy, and recidivism a matter of course. Somehow the mural project intended to engage these issues.
As we pull half onto the sidewalk of Alder Street to park. This was a block away from where Dre and Jeroen lived for two years, transforming a modest house into a base for community engagement (read: regular grilling out). Beside the car, a boy was busy drilling plywood sheets onto window frames.
“Vacancy is the most common property use here,” Dre tells us.
That may be changing.
We reach Germantown Ave, at which point I am overwhelmed by bands of color – reds, pinks, yellows, teals, blues, and blacks dance across the three-storey facades, across boarded windows, above storefronts, even over store signs. PHILLY PAINTING is a stunning achievement, and I haven’t even learned how they got it done.
We head to the Village of Arts and Humanities, to meet a man named El – ex con and community leader. El was a tremendous help introducing the artists to the neighborhood, and building trust for their project along the corridor. At some point, the artists’ charisma took the reins.
As El tries to lead the private tour up the Avenue, we are quick to see it’ll be slow going. Dre is talking to EVERYONE – on the street, and each store proprietor. The mural project spent two years engaging store owners, getting buy-in and then working with them to customize their building’s facade.
For much of the project Dre and Jeroen were training and directing a small office of locals in the application of murals. As great as that economic element was, the positive impacts echo even today. Some of the painting crew have become ambassadors for the neighborhood, when tour buses come up from Downtown to look at the work. El tells us that on at least one occasion, a Germantown local was hired by a tour company specifically to run these tours. A note of hope edges its way into the narrative of the community.
We get to Lehigh Avenue where the mural project drops off – but is not dead. On the opposite street corner, the first floor has been primed with white and lined for the application of the newest pattern of paint.