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Pimp My Favela: How Art Can Improve Living Conditions in Rio's Slums

Favela Painting, a community-driven project that turns hillside slums into artworks of epic scale is giving power back to the community. And after several years of planning, Favel Painting is back with an even bigger project: to paint an entire favela.

In light of the World Cup 2014, a major drug gang clean-up operation is taking place in some of Rio de Janeiro's worst favelas. The government is sending in armed troops, street cleaners armed with whitewash and satellite television salesmen offering a three-month special offer, according to a Guardian report. While these measures are taking place across 12 favelas that are part of the Lins favela complex, long-term supporting NGO, Favela Painting, is taking a more sustainable approach.

Favela Painting, a community-driven project that turns hillside slums into artworks of epic scale is giving power back to the community. And after several years of planning, Favel Painting is back with an even bigger project: to paint an entire favela.

Rio's 513 favelas (slums) are largely known as places of violence where shoot-outs still take place regularly between police and drug lords. Entire favela communities are being ostracized from the rest of the city due to widely spread misconceptions about their integrity. "People go to favelas for two reasons: to buy drugs or to make documentaries," says artist and Favela Painting co-founder Jeroen Koolhaas. "In public opinion, favelas are considered very far away; they're in the middle of the city, but they are an inaccessible other world," which causes a major rift in the community. And for the first time, something other than drugs and documentaries has attracted people into this seemingly uninhabitable environment, and unprecedented positive media coverage is proof of a breakthrough.

Using art as a vehicle, Dutch artist duo, Haas and Hahn (Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn), aim to bridge the gap between favelas and the rest of the city through permanent community-driven art interventions and is a way of showing how far favelas have been misjudged ever since their creation, "...the outside world looks on it as a shame that these neighbourhoods exist and [thinks that] the people who live there should be ashamed of themselves" says artist and co-founder Dre Urhan.

After completing a similar project in a Philadelphia, 'Philly Painting', Koolhaas and Urhahn, found themselves in Brazil in 2005 to film a documentary about hip hop in Rio and Sao Paulo's favelas for MTV when Favela Painting was born. Their aim was to create a monumental artwork to make a change in the way favelas are perceived. They started with a small project; a painting of a boy flying a kite (2006) spread over three buildings in Vila Cruzeiro, one of Rio's most notorious slums.

Central to the project was getting the local community involved. In collaboration with the Ibiss Foundation, an organisation that strives to make favelas fairer places, they employed locals to participate in the project. The second Favela Painting project also took place in Vila Cruzeiro and entailed painting a dramatic 2000 sq m mural on a concrete water barrier, turning it into a carp-filled river in the style of traditional Japanese Irezumi art by legendary tattoo artist Rob Admiraal (2008).

The project received worldwide acclaim from the press but the real breakthrough for the community came on the night of the inauguration when Globo TV, a national television network, sent a reporter to Vila Cruzeiro for the first time since one of its journalists was murdered there in 2002. This revealed that it was possible to change the favela concept in the world's eye. And for the first time in history, the press was reporting on favelas without mention of crime rates.

Thousands of people from all over the city penetrated inside the favela to see the "open-air museum" as the monumental mural was unveiled. For many among the public, it was their very first time inside a favela. Entire communities living in favelas are being eclipsed by the illegal goings-on reported in the news and it is through projects like these that they can veritably exist to the outside world.

In 2010, together with the community the artists proceeded to paint 34 houses in Praça Cantão, Communidade Da Santa Marta, which again brought a broken community together. People became empowered - for the first time they could make a difference in the way their home was perceived. When asked by reporters if they were proud, a couple of young local painters replied in disbelief: "Now, everyone calls us artists." The local kids feel a sense of ownership over the project as they have painted their own houses. "Everyone is asking for the same style, with the rays of colour," said one of the locals. The meticulous care and love the painters poured into the projects in Vila Cruzeiro and Santa Marta makes the artwork not just a tourist attraction but a labour of love: "If it was up to me, I would extend the project to the rest of the community," said one of the young painters, "I'm going to pursue a career as a painter. Because it's something that I like to do. Because it's art..."

Not only is the project helping young people to aspire to something else, but those at the heart of Favela Painting were employed for a month, have learned a trade and have received a diploma, giving them a first stepping-stone to an alternative lifestyle.

Today, after several years' preparation, Koolhaas and Urhahn are "ready to attack the mother of all paintings" and to pursue their ultimate aim: to paint an entire favela. They are aware that painting all the houses of the Vila Cruzeiro favela in a difficult environment with ongoing shootings isn't going to be the easiest of exploits. But the duo isn't losing face and is hoping that this will turn the favela into a landmark that will be on par with the Christ and Sugarloaf. Favela Painting is funding this project via Kickstarter and calls for public donations on the website for the first phase. If targets are met, work will start next year in 2014.

Favela Painting isn't the only project to have taken place in Rio's favelas - high-profile French artist JR who worked on a temporary art project in the Providencia favela in 2008. Unlike Favela Painting, they took on a political stance against the way favelas are perceived by plastering the houses in enormous posters of children's eyes. The impact was instant: for the first time, outsiders were forced to look right into the community's eyes, a community everyone outside the favela is desperate to forget about.

Although sharing the same aim, Favela Painting's success lies in the neutrality of its symbols: "I think it is a political statement to make something unpolitical," says Urhahn. "There is a social and political statement in saying, 'In this slum where there are so many difficulties and so much bad press, let's make something that is totally detached from that, something that's just beautiful'."

Needless to say that a lick of paint won't solve the problems favela communities face, like the lack of clean running water or a constant electricity supply. "We're just giving the favela a new t-shirt", concludes Koolhaas. Some might question the importance of this 't-shirt', but in this case a basic rule of self-perception applies, remind Koolhaas and Urhahn, "If you look good on the outside, you feel good on the inside." And the importance lies in the young people who have participated in the project who now dare to aspire to new hopes and dreams - other than being a part of a drug ring.

Art gives power to the people and in this case, has helped a shunned community become better accepted in the overall community of the Brazilian capital. Inhabitants of Vila Cruzeiro and Santa Marta are now proud when they look up at their homes and see a work of art. A mere t-shirt the Favela Painting projects may be, but it just goes to show that a new look goes a long way.

You can participate to the painting of an entire favela project here: Favela Painting.