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Saturday, October 6, 2012


Before I sat down with Dre Urhahn and Jeroen Koolhass, the two artists hired by Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Project (MAP) to transform several blocks of Germantown Avenue into a vibrant colorful Oz, I stepped into a luncheonette not far from Philly Painting’s (the project’s name) central digs at 2400 Germantown Avenue, a makeshift office and ‘hangout’ space for painters and MAP administrator alike.
I had an hour to kill before my planned interview with the two friends who were commissioned by MTV in 2005 to do a short documentary on the hip hop community in Rio de Janeiro. During that venture the two men joined forces and achieved some fame with their transformation of the 34-building Praca Cantao Project in Rio’s Santa Marta Favela neighborhood. With no organized funding, or even a secret corporate backer, Urhahn and Koolhass took it upon themselves, brushes in hand, to change a mud-colored Brazilian slum into a kaleidoscope of light. The Favela’s boxy houses-- usually described as ramshackle shacks clinging to dirt hills by a thread-- had become, thanks to them, a series of cliff dwelling jewel boxes.

Although the joys of omelet eating are nothing compared to tales of art interventions, I ordered a late breakfast anyway from a waitress busy telling a co-worker to stop shooting off his mouth “because this is a family place.” The luncheonette, like the Avenue outside, was filled with conversation and talk. The mood, despite the humidity and the sound of a dying air conditioner, was so upbeat I had to wonder if there was some connection between the color show going on outside and the mood of the people in this tiny place. After all, when a carnival comes to town—and Philly Painting certainly qualifies as that-- residents traditionally feel some kind of perk.

In the small unofficial office, Urhahn sits at a table going over numbers. His rich tan shows that he’s been painting a lot of outdoor murals, and his wife-beater (Kensington lingo) T-shirt reveals his penchant for body murals: a swath of intricate tattoos that look as though they should be on the side of a building. His tattoos were hidden the first time we met months ago when the weather was cooler, and when Mural Arts Press liaison Cari Feiler Bender, of Relief Communications, LLC., offered to pick me up at the Huntingdon Market Frankford El station—a central marketplace for heroin distribution and an area where addicts tend to nod out collectively, like a still from Village of the Damned—and drive me to the Avenue, where I got my first look at the project. Urhahn at that time was on the street making his rounds, conversing with store clerks and a few neighborhood kids-turned-painters, all temporary MAP hires to help with the project.

“Do you want to walk?” he asked me then, indicating the blocks ahead of us with their freshly painted geometric designs stretching past Lehigh Avenue and then off into the distance to a place where a poet might say merged with something Utopian, to a new and better world.

No sooner did I say yes then I felt as if I was walking with the mayor of a small town. A chain of random ‘hellos’ and how-do-you-do’s’ punctuated the air as store owners and passers-by smiled or shook Urhahn’s hand. On the street were grinding sounds from two sidelined PECO trucks. Apparently the project had called for the turning off of the street’s electricity, a brief outage that caused one store owner some concern, since she approached Urhahn and asked when the power would be turned back on.

“Let me see about that,” he said, immediately jumping into a street hole to consult with two PECO workers. “Very soon,” he said to the owner, “within the hour.”

Recalling that moment in the office, Urhahn says, “Yes, we tried to have a conversation the first time but a million things happened at the same time. That morning was more of a display of what a real day is like rather than a real conversation. But it was fun.”

But ‘fun’ would not be the word he would use to describe his reaction to a recent City Paper article on Philly Painting. That article, he said, seemed to make the execution of the project in Philadelphia sound like a horror story. Even so, Philly Painting seems to have gotten more positive publicity than a filmed-in-Philly Colin Farrell movie.

“Everyday brings an interesting problem in the street,” he tells me. “Today the accident was a city truck ramming a car’s door off right in front of us and almost hitting a lady.”

Urhahn’s project partner, Koolhass, joins us at one of the fold up picnic tables in the office space. Like Urhahn, he’s from Rotterdam, but he’s showing no noticeable tattoos. He’s also dressed for the weather (or emergency painting) in his shorts and flip flops. In most circles the two artists are known as Hass&Hahn, a reference that has a corporate ring like Johnson & Johnson, even if these guys are anything but corporate. As partners, they split duties—Koolhass handles design issues and Urhahn focuses on organizational and administrative tasks. Once in a while, MAP Executive Director Jane Golden will swing by and the three will go out to lunch and discuss the project’s progress. Both men are paid salaries by Mural Arts, but money was never their main goal (they painted the 75,000 square feet of houses in Rio for free). Money came into the picture after a New York Times article on the favela project in Rio attracted the attention of Gary Steuer, Chief Cultural Officer of the City of Philadelphia. Steuer, acting as a talent scout, helped orchestrate the move to incorporate the pair as part of the Philadelphia Commerce Department’s plan to rebuild Germantown Avenue.

“This started as a hobby idea and it grew into a profession. This Mural Arts project is the first real assignment that we were hired for,” Urhahn says. “We were hired by a third party [Gary Steuer]. The work in Brazil was self-motivated and not orchestrated by an organization.”

Urhahn says the work that he and Koolhass did in Brazil was “altruistic,” and that they had no idea that anything would come of it. “One of the biggest problems in that altruistic world,” he says, “is that it is really hard to get paid.”

“At the start we had an idea as to how fast it would go, but it is so incredibly difficult to size it up,” he continues. “We had no idea whether we’d do one building a day, or 3 buildings. We had to get busy first and see how the buildings were going and then readjust our plans step by step.

“You know, there are projects that need an incredible amount of flexibility on everybody’s part,” Urhahn adds, “and this is one of them.”

Meaning, as he’d later divulge, that when they started they had no idea which buildings they would get approval for. And even at this relatively late date, a year into the project, they are still waiting for building approvals, especially since some of buildings are owned by investment companies. Because most of the owners do not live in the buildings, there can be delays when it comes to getting permission to paint, yet even once permission is gotten, there can be complicated questions regarding color choices. Urhahn shrugs philosophically, “It’s like a House of cards-- you have to build it carefully to get there.”

‘There’ in this case could extend far beyond Lehigh Avenue and the streets of Silver, Somerset and Cambria, since there’s talk of the project being extended far into alien streetscapes, of going into the neighborhoods behind the commercial districts so that ordinary homes, just like the hill houses in Rio, would benefit. There’s also talk that Philly Painting might expand into other city neighborhoods, and why not? Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods, so why can’t there be a Philly Painting in Fishtown or Port Richmond as well as in North Philadelphia?

Jane Golden, in fact, believes this is entirely possible, and in an email told me that, “We are in conversations with Haas and Hahn related to future projects, and would love for this relationship to continue.” Overall, Golden says that she is more than satisfied with what has transpired along the Avenue. “Philly Painting has been an incredible opportunity for the Mural Arts Program to hone our social practice. This has been a time of opportunity and learning and we are so appreciative of the support we have received from the Knight Foundation and the City’s Commerce Department to make it happen. This has become a model we have every intention of using in our work in behavioral health, criminal justice, and our community development work.”

For Koolhass, who also works as an illustrator for The New Yorker magazine, proposing color designs to building owners would seem to fall into the community development work category. “I do this so building owners can react to it. They might not like the colors,” he says, “so then in that case we might take them outside and say. ‘Do you like any of the other colors?’ I have a whole panel of swaths I can show them.”

Later, I get to see the swaths Koolhass is talking about when he takes me to his house, a small two-story structure right across the street from Urhahn’s house in what has become an impromptu Philly Painting Village, a street filled with colorful mosaics and a Stonehenge style sculpture park reminiscent of a Druid cemetery. The little street has a Grimm’s Fairy Tales feel. It’s where the artists lived as roommates until Urhahn brought over his wife and cats from Rotterdam. (Koolhass himself has a five month old daughter in Rotterdam.) Koolhass drove me to the street from the Avenue in a recently purchased vintage Mercedes Benz, a car the size of a WWII PT boat. After pointing out a large leather sofa that he bought second hand, he shows me the color panels the store owners get to choose from. They are all organic Philadelphia colors arranged in geometric patterns and look strangely like the fields of southern France as seen from 30,000 feet up.

Putting myself in a store owner’s place, it’s easy to imagine having a hard time making a decision.

“I do a lot of convincing,” Koolhass says, referring to the sensitive task of listening to people tell him what they want in terms of color. One building on the street, for instance—it’s called the ONE + SEVEN variety store-- stands out as a beautiful example of a pastel color blend, even though pastels are not popular among most in the neighborhood. Since one person’s favorite color is another person’s nightmare, the challenge is getting everyone comfortable with the general scheme while respecting individual differences. “You know,” Koolhass adds, “it would be much easier just to make one design and make everybody go along with it, but ultimately the concept of the design is to weave all of these demands into each other into a tapestry of colors.”

“What’s important to us,” he says, referring to Urhahn, “is…if you are living in the world and doing the kind of things---I am a graphic designer and Dre comes from the world of TV production---if you’re doing this kind of work you have a choice to work for companies and making them more money by working for them, or making up something else and creating your own job. I think we like working together because we like inventing our own jobs, and not being at the service of more powerful companies that are already in the business of making more money.
“Once you start working for a sponsor,” he warns, “you have to adjust your agenda to theirs. This makes it very hard to do the work you set out to do.”

That doesn’t seem to be the case with Philly Painting; they are doing the work they set out to do.

Urhahn has begun to see his time in the neighborhood as a fascinating sociological experience. “A book could be written about the store owners here. We know how many children they have, where they live, what colors their kids like, everything. Some of the owners are design-driven, but some are not, they don’t care,” he says.

Both artists, who have done a lot of flying back and forth to Rotterdam and to Rio to attend to old business, are seriously considering making Philadelphia their home. “Look,” Koolhass tells me, “I don’t even have a house in Rotterdam. The first time I came to Philly it was to look at the sites. I lived in New York City then.”

“We do hear from people who drive down here and say that things are so incredibly different now. And there have been people who have to park their car and get out and look at what is going on because it was a change from before,” Urhahn says, adding that it’s fascinating to see residents engaged in serious conversations about color, something they would have never chosen to discuss two years ago.
“The desired effect is not to create an extreme contrast with the rest of the neighborhood, but you want to have something that fits in with the look or feel that is already there.”

But if the practical end of painting storefronts means smoothing over a lot of infrastructure glitches like recessed walls, collapsed chimneys, or broken doorframes---a lot of what you see here is reminiscent of a construction site with scaffolding and construction crane lifts holding aloft painters with brushes ---then credit for the painstaking work of painting belongs to young people from the area, like the two month contract DHS worker kids who left some time ago. These young painters, who have had no experience in the arts, paint solid colors in the empty blocks as sketched out by West Philadelphia muralist, Felix “Flex” St. Fort but designed in-house by Koolhass. “In fact, we were able to ID two people who were working so hard and showed so much potential, we were able to get them longer contracts,” Urhahn said.

As for fears that the paint will fade or chip, Urhahn assures me that Mural Arts has legally bound itself for a certain amount of upkeep for a certain amount of years. “But the quality of the paints we are using is quite extreme. We invested a large portion of the budget in using extremely good paint.”

In other words, expect the finished project to last a good part into the heart of forever.