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Favela Painting: Brushing Up Rio's Slums For World Cup

June 17, 2014

Rio’s slums, known as favelas, get a colorful look thanks to an ambitious project (Photo: AP)

On Sunday, rabid fans filled Rio’s de Janeiro’s Maracanã Stadium for Argentina’s World Cup clash against Bosnia-Herzegovina. The match was also a showcase for the $500 million, three-year-long renovation of Brazil’s legendary Temple of Football.

In the runup to the tournament, however, the world watched as anger over corruption in general and the billions of dollars sunk into Brazil’s World Cup venues erupted into strikes and demonstrations. The national discontent has also put a media spotlight on conditions in the favelas, Rio’s legendary slums. Which reminded me of Santa Marta. 

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Rising steeply uphill near several posh districts, Santa Marta is one of the Marvelous City’s more accessible favelas, one of the first to get cable car service and a local “pacification” squad to ensure safety. On the way in, I passed bare brick and concrete facades of solid but haphazard houses whose electric and phone wires dangled willy-nilly over the street. But suddenly, at the Praça Cantão, a small square at the community’s base, a joyous carnival of lime, orange, pink and other candy colors exploded over a few dozen houses.

The colorful paintings in Rio’s Santa Marta favela (Photo: Nathan Bishop/Flickr)

I had come upon the work of Favela Painting, a project started almost a decade ago by two Dutch designers, Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn, who go by the moniker Haas&Hahn. In Santa Marta, the duo had trained twenty-five local Carioca (as Rio dwellers are called) kids to paint the houses in what Urhahn calls “a locally based, bottom up, communal approach.” Indeed some youths have used the training to become painters themselves, and having the experience on their resume is a plus in a place where job competition is tight.

A favela resident shows his artistic side (Photo: AP)

“The favelas are rich in creativity,” says Urhahn. “Our projects can be a window to look at them in a different way, to not see them as something scary…but as a chance to be in awe of another world, just as someone comes to Barcelona to see Gaudí.”

Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn (Photo: Getty Images)

Indeed, with 8,000 residents, Santa Marta is a city in its own right where locals gossip in alleys while their toddlers play on the ground with puppies. Most visitors make their way to the higher levels where a bronze statue of an exuberant Michael Jackson looms over the city, erected after MJ’s death in tribute to Spike Lee’s 1996 favela video shoot for Jackson’s song “They Don’t Care About Us.” 

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What’s next for Favela Painting? A recent Kickstarter campaign netted over $100,000, according to Urhahn. That’s a long shot toward achieving their ambitious goal of someday painting an entire favela, but it’s enough to start up again in a few weeks in the Vila Cruzeiro favela. A team is there now, near the famous hilltop Penha church in the city’s north, talking to housing owners to see who wants to be involved. Their construction chief, whom they call the “Favela Niemeyer,” is overseeing the first plastering.

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(Photo: AP)

Haas&Hahn have a particular affection for the Vila Cruzeiro favela as they got their start there by producing a widely admired mural called “Boy with a Kite.” They later turned their attention to a stairway that hugs a concrete retaining wall as it runs up a hillside; they transformed it into a stunning rendition of a koi filled river. “You look out and see endless favela housing here,” says Urhahn, “but turn around and you see really rural elements, wooden shacks, horses, pigs —how a favela must have looked on day one.” 

“Boy With a Kite” (Photo: FavelaPainting.com)

While it’s known as one of Rio’s most dangerous favelas,  Vila Cruzeiro even has some hostel rooms available in the middle of it, Urhahn says. Retired soccer star Adriano runs roof parties there too. “It’s a chance to drink a beer with a living legend.” Now, there’s a nice alternative to exorbitant hotel and game tickets.


To donate and visit Favela Painting projects, contact the organization through Favelapainting.com.