Live. Work. Play. Paint?

Last week, members of the Manayunk Neighborhood Council gave initial approval for a new mural project designed to enhance the visual appeal of their neighborhood. 

Jane Lipton, executive director of the Manayunk Development Corporation, presented preliminary details of the project, which would unite the funding mechanisms of multiple organizations to cover the cost of several murals by a Dutch painting duo known as "Favela Painting."

Under the terms of the proposal, the remnants of the Maloomian property on Manayunk's Venice Island – along with the rear walls of the buildings along the Manayunk Canal – would be given a makeover by Favela, enhancing the visual presence of both the buildings and the neighborhood.

To fund the project, the Manayunk Special Services District [MSSD] is allocating $50,000. Lipton indicated that this figure matches a grant received from the Knight Foundation to underwrite the Manayunk murals, along with two other Favela projects in Philadelphia. (Disclaimer: WHYY/Newsworks receives funding from the Knight Foundation.)

Lipton said that while she is desirous of public art in Manayunk, she predicted that the Favela project could convey a "different" message about her district – "a vibrant, bright, artistic message."

Lipton emphasized that no final artistic decisions have been made, and added that neither MNC nor Favela Painting will go forward without community support for the project. 

The artistic approach 

Favela Painting is the brainchild of artists Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn, who collaborate together under the working title of "Haas and Hahn." According to the duo's website, they began working together in 2005, when they filmed a documentary about hip hop in the favelas – shanty towns – of Rio and São Paolo for MTV.

Sufficiently inspired, Koolhaas and Urhahn conspired "to bring outrageous works of art to unexpected places," and, as related by their website, began their career by painting outsized murals in Brazil in collaboration with local youth.

Lipton explained how Manayunk got their attention.

Approximately a year ago, the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program [MAP] asked MDC for assistance in submitting a grant to the Knight Foundation that would bring Haas and Hahn to Manayunk.

The Knight Foundation is a major charitable organization whose roots lay in the Knight chain of newspapers. The Foundation's community-oriented activities focus on 26 communities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers. Philadelphia is one of eight "resident Knight communities" with dedicated staffing, according to the Foundation's website. 

After securing a $50,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, MAP brought the painters to Philadelphia, where they agreed to take on three projects, including the one in Manayunk. 

Lipton recalled that the duo "fell in love" with the Maloomian site. She added that Dennis Maloomian, owner of the property, was contacted by Schuylkill Project Director Kay Sykora and expressed interest in the property.

However, Haas and Hahn's enchantment with the property concerned Lipton, as she projected that the site may be rehabilitated at some point, rendering their collective labors – and monies dedicated thereto – in vain.

In response to this, the artists expanded the design to include the backs of three large buildings on Main St. that form the rear of the Manayunk Canal towpath, thereby providing a level of permanence to the project.

A neighborhood push for art 

The Favela Painting project would be the fourth artistic undertaking for Manayunk in recent months, explained Lipton.

The first was a series of 30 portrait paintings titled "Look Long and Look Good" by Philadelphia artist Mat Tomezsko, which was completed last year and funded by the Mural Arts Foundation and MDC.

The second plan, as related by Lipton, was a design by artist Peter Gibson to paint turtles in the crosswalks of four streets in Manayunk. The plan experienced an eleventh-hour complication when the Streets Dept. objected to the placement of the design within crosswalks, citing traffic hazards.

A compromise was reached with the city, and two crosswalks at Rector St. and Grape St. feature the reptiles. Lipton said that Cotton St. and Lock St. await similar enhancements, but plans are shelved until construction on Venice Island is concluded.

Lipton said work on a third project at Canal View Park in Manayunk will be completed in June.

Community support 

While the location has been settled, Lipton said that she has no further information about how the project itself will take shape.

"We don't know what they're going to do yet," she said. Emphasizing this, she added, the artists "won't even come to look and do engineering studies on the site if they think we don't want this to happen."

With this stipulation in place, Lipton sought feedback from the MNC.

Residents expressed concern that the project would not be of benefit to the community – rather, by being placed on the backsides of buildings, the paintings would only benefit motorists on the Schuylkill Expressway.

Lipton countered this by observing that the designs could serve as a draw for expressway travelers – 128,000 per day, she noted – and that the designs could combat what she termed as the "urban blight" associated with sections of Manayunk.

In addition, the Favela designs could combat rampant graffiti at the Maloomian site. Citing figures provided to her by MAP, Lipton said that murals are usually left untouched by vandals – with 95-percent of murals avoiding heavy tagging.

With no other concerns voiced, Lipton reiterated the need for community approval for the site, and pledged to continue to work toward to the mutual benefit of businesses and residents.

"MDC has moved forward in a common vision with people who live in the neighborhood to address larger problems," she said, "and I believe this [project] could be a part of that."