Joyful sidewalks, joyful cities

By Ingrid Fetell Lee


They look almost like brightly colored mosses, don’t they? Like some new form of street lichen. Or a kind of chromatic filling compound. A rainbow grout.

This set of sculptures by artist Juliana Santacruz Herrera is a particularly striking example of yarnbombing, a form of knit or crochet-based street art that frequently reacts to the urban environment. In Herrera’s case, this means applying braided fabric in looped forms to cracks in the sidewalks of Paris. Like the pothole gardens and lego repairs I’ve written about in past posts, Herrera’s works use delight to call attention to the breakdown of infrastructure in the city. Like other yarnbombing projects, they work with maximal contrast – in color, contour, density, and texture – to catch our eyes and make us take notice. While they don’t actually fix the problems they’re addressing, it’s possible that inducing this kind of positive affect makes people more inclined to act to change their environments. More than an angry letter or a protest, these works create a desire to share with others, creating a kind of social momentum.

Herrera’s works are one more example of a phenomenon I call joyful repair – the act of mending or calling attention to a damaged element of the environment using color, texture, playful gestures, and other aesthetics of joy. It’s a form of joyful activism, which tries to bring about change through positive emotion, and it’s one of my very favorite applications of aesthetics of joy.








Here’s another example I’ve had in my files for awhile. Working at a slightly smaller scale, London artist Ben Wilson uses chewing gum splotches as a canvas for tiny, brightly colored sidewalk art. Wilson has been creating the paintings since 1998, and estimates he’s made over 10,000 of the little works! Interestingly, not long after he began his gum-painting endeavors, people began making requests for particular designs, often commemorative. So what began as litter has become an odd little system of tribute, like plaques on park benches or in front of newly planted trees. People want to be associated with something they feel good about, and with a little color and charm, that even could be improperly discarded chewing gum. The sidewalk at first seems an unusually mundane place for this sort of personal connection, but maybe not. After all, the sidewalk is the most intimate of transitory spaces in a community, the backdrop for so many of our daily dramas and spontaneous joys. Filling its holes, reclaiming its blemishes – in some way these are a deeply integral form of reconstruction.

Chewing Gum Art by Ben Wilson

Ben Wilson

Chewing gum art by ben wilson 7

There’s something else here, too. Projects like this are a signal that someone cares about a place, that the condition of that environment matters to someone. Someone is paying attention to the details. To make something beautiful is to invest time and energy in it, and these two are the most valuable, limited resources we have. We perceive this signal of caring and passion, often unconsciously, and we typically follow in kind. We read our landscape for cues about how to treat it, we draw inferences about the inhabitants, and we subtly alter our behavior to maintain this condition – or enhance it. These aesthetic signals often become a discourse of community, a conversation between the denizens of a place that leads, via a subtle form of one-upmanship, to the organic growth and improvement of our favorite places to call home. Alain de Botton has written (I’m paraphrasing here) that one of architecture’s purposes is to inspire us to be better people, and I would say the same for any of these urban interventions. We see improvements, and they unconsciously motivate us to improve ourselves.

Favela painting 1

Joyful repair projects can serve as jumpstarts for this process. This project, though not new, is a great example of this principle applied over a large scale. Called “Favela Painting,” this brightly colored village is the work of Dutch artists Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn. Working in a slum outside Rio, their goal is to use art “as a tool to inspire, create beauty, combat prejudice, and attract attention.” The care and passion embodied by the murals effectively transforms the favela from outside in. Some really thoughtful words about the effects of this project, on the Magical Urbanism site:

‘Favela painting’ affects the aesthetic order of how favelas are perceived from within and outside its natural embryonic growth. Colour brings hope. It brings a different understanding of space and its people, inviting others to co-create and co-represent much more constructively and positively life here. It appeals to our senses in a way that we do not reject but embrace these places and the potential for better life. It articulates a different discourse of social change; of engagement, contributing to improve life for favela dwellers.

It’s hard to say it any more succinctly than “color brings hope.” It suggests energy, and as such it has an uplifting and an attractive power. It’s a harbinger of better things to come. As I think about the phenomenon of joyful repair, I’m reminded of the root of the word repair, the Latin parare, “to make ready.” By repairing things, we are making them ready again. By repairing them joyfully, we’re making them ready for wonderful things to happen in the future.

Favela painting 2

Favela painting 3

Favela painting 4

Images: Juliana Santacruz Herrera on Flickr via designboom; Ben Wilson via Inhabitat; Favela Painting via The Fox Is Black.

{Thank you Maggie and BD}

May 3rd, 2011


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    Discussion (8 Comments)

  1. John Tangney on May 3, 2011

    Oh yeah?

    Check this out:

    Yarnbombing in Berkeley. I’ve seen them at work, and their work is all over. It is wonderful.

  2. Rick Hodge on May 4, 2011

    Wow, just the words ‘joyful repair’ make me feel more hopeful for the world. Great post!

  3. Jennifer on May 5, 2011

    Beautiful. I love seeing artists create simple beauty where before there was little or none.

  4. Lori Anderson on May 5, 2011

    This is amazing! I’m a HUGE fan of color! Why don’t our cities have beauty like this!

  5. Tamara Jacobs on May 6, 2011

    Lovely. Innovative. Colourful. Inspiring. The Joyful Favelas are my favourite. What a great way to brighten up what can be a very dark living situation.

    1. Ingrid on May 20, 2011

      Nice thoughts. Seeing all these comments reminds me how powerful something as simple as colored string can be.

  6. Rachel Heidenreich on September 9, 2011

    Wow oh wow. I lived in Brazil for a time and remember visiting people in the favela, their son was ill and dying because of their extremely poor living conditions. I love color! The brighter the better– the more colors the happier! My son is autistic and nonverbal, sometimes when we’re walking together he’ll stop (in the middle of a grocery store) and lay flat on his back and look up at the ceiling. Sometimes he’ll stop to look at the cracks in the street . . . gets down on his hands and knees to touch them. People will look at him– and at me for not immediately yanking him up to his feet. I like to try to see the world as he does, to find beauty in a change of perspective. Thanks for your work, I feel like going out and finding a place to color 🙂

    1. Ingrid on September 10, 2011

      Rachel, thank you for this sensitive comment. I so appreciate your perspective of trying to see what your son sees, and appreciate the sensations for their raw beauty. Lovely inspiration for all of us!


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