Transforming the appearance of the sprawling slums of Rio and Sao Paolo is more than just art - it's a mix of political statement and social project, too, explains Vida Adamoli


In 2004 Dutch artists, Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn, were in Brazil filming a documentary. While doing so they often visited the favelas of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. It seemed to them that the monotonous brick housing stacked up the steep hillsides symbolised the hopeless life of the people who inhabited them - people for whom gun-toting, glue sniffing and crime was the norm. Jeroen and Dre wracked their brains as to how they could help.

Then one day an idea came to them both simple and inspired. They would transform the favelas into huge art galleries, using the surfaces of the houses as giant canvasses and painting murals on them. They hoped this would send a positive message both to the inhabitants and the world.

The first giant painting was made in Vila Cruzeiro, one of Rio’s most notorious shantytowns. It was of a small boy flying a kite in a big blue sky. The response it got was heart-warming.

'One lady was convinced the project was God showing her he had listened to her prayers,' said Dre Urhahn. 'And the people who actually lived in the painted building said even the dog liked it because he’d stopped peeing against the wall. Vitor and Mauri, the two kids who helped us paint it, became local heroes. And the painting made a deep impact on the wider community, too. The Jornal do Brasil, an important national newspaper, did a whole page article about the painting. It was the first time that the Brazilian media had written anything positive about slums like Vila Cruzeiro.'

Jeroen and Dre know that police raids, drug wars and shootings don’t stop because of art. Violence and murder are daily occurrences. In 2007, two hundred military policemen, backed up by three helicopters, launched an assault on Vila Cruzeiro, killing at least six 'suspects' and wounding several civilians.

But Dre and Jeroen hope the paintings will give favela dwellers a new sense of pride in their environment and help raise self-esteem. They also hope to spark the kids' creativity, possibly inspiring them to pursue a career in graphics, design or painting.

More crucially they want to show that there are other paths in life besides gangs and drug trafficking.

Read more about the Favela Painting Project and take a look at this video

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