Turning An Entire Rio Favela Into A Giant Work Of Brightly Painted Art

Trying to help change the perception of the Brazilian shantytowns, two artists are working with locals to use a lot of color to create a new perspective.

As Brazil readies itself for a momentary influx of 2014 World Cup visitors, a pair of Dutch artists are readying a hometown team of favela painters for the long haul. And they’ve turned to Kickstarter to make it happen, with over 1,000 backers amassed to date.


Nearly seven years ago, creative partners Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn traveled from their home base in Amsterdam to the infamous favelas of Rio de Janeiro to shoot a film on the burgeoning hip-hop movement in the city. Originally constructed by Brazilian soldiers without any other place to live after their military service in the late-19th century, the favelas came to be defined by violence, drugs, and extreme poverty. These are not quaint shantytowns: A recent United Nations estimate puts the favela population at more than 12 million people–6% of Brazil’s total population.

Upon arriving in Rio, Haas & Hahn, as they’ve come to be known, encountered a group of rappers struggling to get their messages out. “They were asking the world to look at them and the favelas in a different way, but no one was listening to them,” explains Urhahn. “As we sat there, looking at the rolling hills of houses, we wondered, why not use the strong social coherence that exists in the slums and channel the extreme creativity of people?”

Haas & Hahn’s first project, in 2007, was a giant, mostly one-dimensional mural of a boy flying a kite. Their second undertaking involved painting a chain of staircases to look like a rushing river. And their landmark project–with hues of bright blues, greens, yellows, and pinks—transformed the facades of 31 buildings into a massive work of art. To do so, the team often builds up small-scale models of their sites, on which they project light to determine the colorful shapes so synonymous with their work.

“The interesting part is that it was a project born in Rio, and not anywhere else. It was never a theory turned into action, but action turned into theory,” Urhahn says.

When speaking about this next iteration–an ambitious plan to paint an entire favela–Urhahn explains: “It’s not just growing in scale, but in depth as well; our goal is to make a maximum impact.”

The team is asking questions, such as “How can you use art to maximize every potential? What can it do, what can it offer, to a person involved? Is it just a job, or the beginning of a career? Can you teach people other things–beyond painting–by painting?”


“When we started, we just hired assistants,” confesses Urhahn. “What we do now is build a team of professionals.” Other projects have taken similar approaches in the favelas including the filming of City of God, where kids were trained to be actors and crew, or Waste Land, Brazilian artist Vik Muniz’s work with pickers in Rio’s vast dumps.

With impact in mind, Haas & Hahn have their eye on the long game. “Our dream, ultimately, is to make a perpetual project. These are murals, so they suffer from sun, rain, etc. They even suffer from kids’ feet as they play on it.” Urhahn explains, “When you paint a wall or a floor, you don’t think about the fact that a responsibility comes with a project; you have to train people to do this crucial maintenance.”

These days, it’s impossible for Haas & Hahn and their crew to walk a few steps in the favelas without people asking what’s next or whether they have any job openings. “We get a lot of different reactions, but most have to do with being proud to live there or have been a part of making it,” says Urhahn. “Some favela dwellers even remark that they feel like they live in a museum or an art gallery.”

Back the Favela Painting Project campaign on Kickstarter, now until October 31.

About the author

John Cary is the author of The Power of Pro Bono, founding editor of, and a strategist for the $1,000,000 TED Prize.