Get Familiar: United Painting
Interview by Passion Dzenga | Photography by Saffron Pape | Videography by Seven Halsema | Music by Danny Keen for Lautmaus
Community is at the core of what we do here at Patta and it is that need to provide for those around us that keeps us at street level. One project which resonates with our tenets is the United Painting project. Since last August, the United Painting Crew has been working on its largest and by far most intricate art project in the Netherlands to date. Together with over a hundred friends, colleagues and volunteers, they have completely re-imagined the East tunnel at Amsterdam's Central Station and covered the walls with a collectively designed series of patterns, inspired by the iconic floor tiling and orchestrated by Marije Lyske Hester. Painting large parts at night - and doing detailing at daytime, while thousands of travelers and commuters pass by. A key member of this organisation is Dre Urhahn who caught up with us on the eve of the latest projects opening to let us know all about the United Painting project.
Why is this project important to you?
Apart from the fact that it is our largest project since painting hills in Rio de Janeiro or whole city blocks in North Philly - and it by far being the most intricate and detailed piece I’ve ever worked on personally, I’m mostly impressed by the collaborative nature of the process and the amount of people that were able to participate.
We started this commission without a set design concept, ensuring the flexibility to build a process focused on collaborative design. Lead designer Marije Hester created a concept that took the iconic floor tiling to a completely new level and created a remix- tool, which enabled our participants to design individual patterns that, woven together into a long sequence of changes in color and shape, form the new visual soundtrack of the tunnel. The process is pure hip hop; sampling a classic sequence and creating a design remix. I hope that passengers - whether arriving, departing or in transfer, feel this rhythm while passing through the tunnel.
How important has collaboration been on this project?
Throughout the years this has become the DNA of our organization. All projects should be collaborations, all work relationships should be partnerships. We are currently developing a partnership incubator programme with the VSB fund, aimed at unlocking potential collaborations that might be small, fast and flexible fast and that find the existing range of financing options too slow or rigid.
Life should be all about collaboration: It should be a given. It’s a terrible thing that our society steered so far away from collectivity. We should all work together, no one should be left out. Patta’s slogan ‘Love for All’ says it all. It’s a shame that it is an exception and no matter of course.
Who has been coming by and volunteering?
Over the past six months we were joined by more than a hundred people that collaborated, from design to actual painting. Some came for a few hours, others returned on a daily basis. In the beginning we worked mostly at night - as the tunnel would be closed - but further into the project we started working daytime as well, sharing the space with tens of thousands daily commuters.
Volunteers ranged from station workers (especially the cleaning crew that we came very familiar with) to passer-byers who simply asked if they could return to paint sometimes. Our steady crew consists mainly of painters with a migrant background, who joined us over the last few years, while doing projects in centers for asylum seekers and refugee shelters throughout the Netherlands. It was amazing to see all the interaction between participants and passers-byers.
Normally only the people that are in a hurry catch your attention, but when you are painting, many people turn out to have a few minutes to spare in between connections and stop for a chat, often giving the painters compliments, hugs and sometimes even sing them a song or hand out flowers.
Often when I talk about this, I tend to sound super corny, but I can't help being mesmerized by the magnetic nature of the work and the magic that happens when you work as a collective on a shared goal, especially when that goal is something like a public art work. And maybe more than other forms of art, this work lends itself perfectly for collaboration. It’s quite easy to start and there is always a place for everyone within our projects - and even when you don’t speak the same language, you can work together and get to know each other. It seems to go so organic and fluid, that even after 17 years of work it keeps baffling me every time. I would never want to do anything else.
On the flipside you get confronted by reality on a daily basis. In this particular project, working on the central station we were confronted with the massive sudden help for Ukrainian refugees, who upon arrival - mothers, children, pets included - are awaited by an army of volunteers. With our crew originating from Sudan, Iraq, Eritrea, Yemen, it’s very confronting to realize that Pudels from one country are more welcome here than Humans from another and we hope that at least within the decor of our projects we can bring people closer together.
How did art first enter your life?
My father was an urban planner and my mother a painter, so it was obvious that I would end up painting cities I guess. This started in 2005 when my former colleague Jeroen Koolhaas and I found ourselves shooting a documentary on Hip-Hop in the favelas of Brazil, somehow became inspired to think up a plan to help change public perception by creating artworks as a visual intervention - and simply started painting. The process was totally experimental and definitely not devoid of white privilege and saviorism. The project became quite famous,we ended up in newspapers, doing TED talks and being asked to do spin off projects in places all over the world. Over the years our projects - but mostly all the amazing people we met along the way- taught us so much about society and our role in it and helped us evolve our work and change focus on inclusiveness, autonomy and collaboration.
The project in Rio de Janeiro still exists, but now it is a mosaic project, recreating a giant painting of Japanese Koi Carp, created years ago with tattoo master Rob Admiraal. It is organized locally and operates autonomously, in collaboration with United Painting. There is a group of local women who became experts in the field of mosaic - and the project leader Fabio Rondinelle not only works with us, but is also closely connected with Rocky Hehakaija’s Favela Street Project and the Patta Foundation.
Public art projects democratize a seemingly exclusive world, what does your project do to combat that?
Exclusivity is a perversion of our society and should be fought. ‘No RSVP - Everybody is welcome’ we wrote on top of the invitation for our project’s opening event. Still people call to ask if they can come - and maybe bring a friend.
How can people get involved in what you are doing?
They could send a brief description of their idea in the form of a collaboration or partnership to email@example.com or dm us on our instagram account.