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The “Art Heist For Good” Is Turning Street Art Into Clean Water In Kenya’s Kibera Slum

When street artist JR’s massive canvases began deteriorating in the harsh sun, the U.S. nonprofit WaterIsLife saw an opportunity.

The “Art Heist For Good” Is Turning Street Art Into Clean Water In Kenya’s Kibera Slum

In 2009, French street artist JR undertook his most ambitious project to date: a series of photos of the eyes and faces of the women of Kenya’s Kibera slum, printed on water-resistant material and applied to over 20,000 square feet of rooftops in Kibera. In 2015, the American nonprofit WaterIsLife stole those portraits, sold them at auction, and used the proceeds to buy water filters, handwashing stations, and improved water distribution networks for Kibera.

The “Art Heist for Good” took JR’s portraits–which began deteriorating under the Kiberan sun in the five years since they were completed–and brought them to the U.S., where an art dealer took the massive prints to auction. The stolen roofs were quickly replaced with corrugated metal roofs to protect the residents. A campaign from the agency Deutsch tells the story of how the heist–which took two years to plan, and minutes to pull off–went down. It’s a fascinating campaign (with maybe some ethical issues to consider–the implication that art isn’t for poor people is a rough one, if you think about it for a moment), and one that’s still ongoing, with a lot more rooftops left to be raided.

About the author

Dan Solomon lives in Austin with his wife and his dog. He's written about music for MTV and Spin, sports for Sports Illustrated, and pop culture for Vulture and the AV Club.