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Rio slum transformed into canvas bursting with color

By Shasta Darlington, CNN
  • Residents in the Santa Marta slum in Rio have turned their community into a living canvas
  • The Favela Painting project is the brainchild of two Dutch artists
  • The artwork spans 34 buildings and is attracting foreign and local tourists

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (CNN) -- Bare brick houses stacked one on top of another cling to the hills of Rio de Janeiro.

Raw sewage trickles down the winding paths of these shanty towns, known as favelas, and in many, shootouts between drug dealing gangs and police are a daily ritual.

The shanty towns are resented and feared by the rest of the city.

But residents in the Santa Marta slum have transformed their community into a living, breathing canvas.

With the help of two Dutch artists and a pioneering paint firm, the main square is now a kaleidoscope of color.

"It gives the community life!" said Edimar Marcelinho Franco, who helped paint the 34 buildings and walked away with a professional painting title.

"People who come to the favela today say, 'Wow, how pretty.' It doesn't have that image of an ugly favela," he said.

The project is the brainchild of Dutch artists Dre Urhahn and Jeroen Koolhaas, who visited Rio's favelas for the first time in 2005 to shoot hip hop videos.

'Slums' transformed into works of art
People who come to the favela today say, 'Wow, how pretty.' It doesn't have that image of an ugly favela.
--Edimar Marcelinho Franco

They rented rooms in one of the city's most dangerous slums, Vila Cruzeiro, and worked with local youths.

"We suddenly had this clear vision that it would actually be great to transform their living environment together with them into something artistic that would install pride in their life," Urhahn told CNN.

They created the Favela Painting project.

"We wanted to do something that would give them an opportunity to become painters and that would call attention to the outside world to their situation," he said.

They first painted "Boy Flying a Kite," an enormous mural covering the sides of three buildings.

Then residents painted a cement hillside with fish leaping in a river, which caught the eye of the local media.

"If you are able to get a positive message out about this place in the newspaper, then your project is a success. And we did. So that was very inspiring," Urhahn said.

While crime hasn't abated, the project put Vila Cruzeiro on the map for something other than drug trafficking.

Next, Urhahn and Koolhaas put Santa Marta on the drawing board.

They found residents excited about the idea of a facelift for their community, a slum tamed by police and showing signs of a newly acquired purchasing power.

But even here, sewage runs down the paths of the hillside community, accessible only on foot.

Brazilian paint company Coral, a subsidiary of Holland's AkzoNobel, offered to help with raw materials and training for locals.

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Tigrao, or Big Tiger, was a drug dealer before he got involved with the project.

"It gave me a different outlook on life, showing me that an honest job can be a good thing," he said. "If Coral had 30 or 50 more job openings, I'm certain they would pull another 50 people off that wrong path."

They created a massive artwork covering 34 buildings that has attracted foreign and local tourists and boosted the self-esteem of residents.

"Color brings status," said Carlos Piazza, AkzoNobel's communication director for Latin America. "What divides the city, the formal city, from the informal city? Painting, that's it."

If donations come in, an entire favela could be next -- a monument created by the people who live in it for the entire city.