Haas & Hahn Talk

Art & Culture

Haas & Hahn are a hip hop loving Dutch duo who have spent the past decade painting large scale artworks in public places, transforming everywhere from a favela in Rio to a run down street in Philadelphia into explosions of colour. Here's the kind of thing we're talking about:

Having recently been included in the Joy Will Take you Further initiative (more on that over here), the duo are taking stock of just where they're going to paint next. Here's what they had to tell us… 

Okay, so could you just tell me how you got up the point of where you’re at now? How did the Haas & Hahn project start?

So, we were filming a documentary in Rio when this idea came up for a painting. At the time, we were interviewing a lot of people and we were visiting a lot of Favelas and we felt that the Favelas are seen by people that don’t live in them was very negative – and that wasn’t really the feeling that we got when we were hanging out there. Of course there was lots of prominent violence but we met a lot of great people and we saw a way of life that we felt was amazing. We were just playing with ideas of what could make people look at an environment in a different way, and that’s how the idea came about around 10 years ago, and that’s how it started.

So how did this new project with Johnny Walker come about?

Ah, so the project with Johnny Walker represents the idea of their new campaign and this is a process that started a few months ago. Thy came to us with an idea for a campaign and asked if we wanted to be a part of it and be in a commercial alongside a group of other people. Part of the deal of us being in that campaign was that they supported our projects with funding, but how that’s going to work exactly is still yet to be defined due to the short notice of everything,

So you’ve now got the decision as to what you can put the funding towards?

No, this is something that we’ll be doing in conversation with Johnny Walker. But we’ve got a substantial amount of money allocated to our projects and whether that’ll be for Brazil, Curacao or Haiti is yet to be decided and how that is going to work out is something that we’re going to start planning.

Haiti at the moment is a country that’s going through some quite serious issues at the moment isn’t it. What are you doing out there?

We’re doing a neighbourhood community painting project and so far we’ve also plastered a lot of houses. They’re currently being painted and we’re travelling back a forth to do so. It’s a similar kind of project to what we’ve been doing in Brazil.

What’s the response been from the people to the artwork that’s going up?

It’s great, yeah. We’ve got 30 people employed there; 20 plasterers and 10 painters. They’re all local people from the neighbourhood. It was just plain cinderblock before, but now the houses are being finished with the magnificent plastering quality. They’re doing a really great job and visible from quite a way off. There’s quite a buzz being created about something that’s going on in this neighbourhood. It’s definitely positive.

I was just in a place called Quento De Mocho in Lisbon, I’m not sure if you’re aware of it, but it’s a whole estate that has been painted up by the community. They all decided what artworks they wanted to go up and it looks amazing, but some of the residents feel that the artwork was put up as a way for the local government to pretend as if they were doing something for the area, without actually tackling any of the deeper seated problems. Is that something you ever consider or worry about?

Of course. The capacity to tackle other problems is something that needs to grow, budget wise and expertise wise. These paintings are symbolic for bringing the neighbourhood together and getting people to cooperate and talk to each other – and that’s just the start of things. But now for example, in Haiti, we’re working on infrastructure, repairing stairs and we’ve got a local journalism group set up to report about what’s going on in the neighbourhood. All the design process goes through a workshop process where the people are really involved, so we’re really trying to improve their lives over the whole course of the projects. Of course though, it starts as a project that has it’s feet in art. We’re not telling the world that we’re making people lives better, we’re essentially just making art in these places and doing the most that we can to involve the local neighbourhood as much as possible and seeing how that can work. We’re not a charity organisation.

The first things you did in the favela were a few years back now. Have you revisited those areas and seen a positive legacy there from the things that you’ve done?

We’re still working in the same area, ten years later. We’ve always continued working there. Regardless of our project, a favela will always have its ups and downs, especially favelas in Rio. Just from putting up a layer of paint in a community of 60,000 people who are essentially going through a war situation between drug gangs and the police, you can’t really claim that you’re making a huge difference there. We do what we can and we’re getting a good response from the people who are living there, but we try to bring positive attention to these areas, otherwise it’s purely negative attention.

It’s just about changing perceptions then isn’t it.

Yeah, it’s also about taking an interest in people and an interest in their lives. We’ve spent years there, so people know that we’re invested in the community in a way where we’re just trying to do what we can – using our passion for art to do what we can to help other people do something, as opposed to doing nothing.

Now you’re getting involved with a brand has it been tricky to negotiate the point of what you want to do and what they want you to do?

No actually, not really because they haven’t really bound us to things they want. They just want us to do what we usually do anyway. They’re just supporting our organisation.

How do you go about choosing the locations for where you want to start a new project?

It depends really. Mostly it’s through getting requests from local governments or local organisations, people who have these ideas or people that might be sitting on some funding. These projects are expensive, so that’s the nice thing about the deal with Walker is that we can pick where we want to invest the money. But usually it’s just a culmination of aligned interests and funds.

So is there anywhere in the world you haven’t had a chance to get too yet but that you’re keen to look into doing something with now?

Yeah, I mean there are endless amounts of places that would be interesting. The problem is not finding the places themselves, but actually getting everything together to get the project off the ground and getting the funding together and that can take anywhere from a year to three years.

When it comes to the artwork, and obviously you work with the communities, how much do you feel that your artwork changes in each location? Is it hugely influenced by the location?

Yeah, definitely. As we go on, we’re learning more and more how we can adapt to each place. It’s definitely becoming more tailor-made to a place and to colour culture and as to what the architecture looks like in the beginning.

Have you got any particular favourite projects that you’ve worked on or anything that you feel has been a really great success?

I really like the project that we did in Philadelphia where we painted a whole avenue and it just hasn’t had that much attention, maybe because it’s not as much of a media-hungry location as Rio. But the people that we lived with there were amazing and it was just a great place to be whilst we did the project. So it hasn’t had a lot of attention, but it’s definitely a favourite of mine.

Were there any similarities between the community in Philly and the community in Rio?

Similarities and dissimilarities, both.

So you said you’re in Brazil and Haiti at the moment, is there anywhere else?

Yeah, we’re in Curacao as well.

What’s the project that you’re working on there?

We’re still defining it at the moment. We’ve done quite a few workshops there and painted a building, but through doing those workshops they’re now making plans as to what’s next. We’ve also got plans to set up a small art academy there.

So the scheme goes far beyond just painting the front of buildings really then doesn’t it.

Yeah, for sure. Our ambitions are much wider, but at the moment we’re looking into expertise on how to actually do this, but we want to open up door for more people to have access to using their creativity to make these kinds of things happen. So with something like the academy we can sue that to open doors and get more people involved and also get people that are smarter at those kinds of things than we are involved too – working with universities and schools to see how students could become involved and help us with the thinking process. 

Find out more about Haas & Hahn on their website