“It’s hardest at the bottom here,” says Abdelaziz Mamon, 29, as he lies stretched out on the floor, gently taping the edges with tape to be painted a little sharper. Place of execution: the eastern tunnel at Amsterdam Central Station, which will be demolished in stages between 2025 and 2028. The almost complete task: to paint a work of art on the tunnel walls. The artists: the United Painting team, and everyone who wants to help give the tunnel a nice goodbye.
The driving force behind United Painting, founded in 2005, is Dre Urhahn. Born and raised in Amsterdam, it was not obvious that he would ever make such a big project in his hometown. Since 2005, he has worked in slums in Brazil, in Haiti and in the poorest areas of major cities in the United States. There were smaller projects in the Netherlands, but generally compressed Dutch rules make United Painting’s free way of working impossible. Urhahn: “We like working in shady areas, temporarily, in places that are changing.”
I commend the courage that the customer has shown to give us this task
Dre Urhahn United painting
The eastern tunnel at Amsterdam Central Station meets this requirement perfectly: demolition is already planned. It paves the way for letting go of rules, including the rules of, for example, the NS house style. Urhahn: “I commend the courage shown by the client in giving us this task. Our art arises organically, so we can not present a design in advance. Our only promise is that we will do our best to do something appropriate. ”
Even who ‘we’ are is not predetermined. There is Urhahn’s core team, chief designer Marije Lytske Hester, project manager Thamon van Blokland and a number of ‘painters’ who are happy to join when they have time. Furthermore, United Painting’s work revolves around forming not only a work of art, but also a community through painting and design.
A photo or selfie
It seems like a pretty miraculous hope in a place where people rush past each other in droves. But if you look at it while painting, you immediately see and feel that community. Passers-by take a picture or selfie, a little one in a buggy points to the wall and gallops with joy as people walk up the stairs to the platform and people admire the result along the way. A cleaning machine with a giant container on wheels comes out of a side corridor. “Today I come to help!” he shouts to Urhahn. They laugh out loud. Urhahn: “He says that every day and he never comes, but he belongs with us.”
About a hundred people have helped since the summer. Cleaning staff, but also the station manager, in other words the builder, contributed to the paint, as did the owners and employees of the station shops. Volunteers also sign up via social media, and sometimes students from courses where United Painting provides guest instruction. Travelers often stop for a chat. Urhahn: “Many people have lost a few minutes before their train runs.”
Abdelaziz Mamon became involved in United Painting when the collective made a project in the asylum seeker center where he lived. Now he has received a residence permit and is in the process of an ICT course. United Painting was approved as an internship. What does that have to do with IT? “Not much,” he laughs. “Because of the corona, I could not find an internship, and I want to continue in the arts. As a kid in Sudan, I was always busy with colors, I always drew. “
The work of the monk
Mamon is there almost every day, the painter next to him, Emma Hameleers (35), comes once a week. She is a lawyer, quit her job and was looking for what she wanted in life. “Then came the corona,” she says, “and I had a hard time keeping in touch with people. I ended up here through a creative course.” She finishes the edges of pink circles with a super thin brush. “It’s not complicated,” she says, “but it’s a painstaking job. Very nice. “She has the feeling that she belongs again, even though it will be over soon.” It’s okay. This tunnel is in transition, and so am I. ”
The design of the approximately 150 meter long walls consists of slender shapes in eleven mainly soft colors. The variety in patterns is huge, yet it exudes unity. When asked about the secret, Dre Urhahn turns on his laptop to reveal a program that a friend wrote for the occasion. “It’s a collaborative design,” he says, “that only works within a tight framework. The frame is inspired by the black-and-white checkered floor in the station hall, which is from the 1980s. There is a rhythm in it, with the I’et and the H as the basic forms. If you add geometric shapes to it, you get new patterns. What happens when you color these shapes? What is useful? “
And that’s what the program is for. I and H are fixed. If desired, anyone can click to add shapes and select colors, thus designing a piece of wall. Urhahn demonstrates this. He says, “And when you’re out, click here, and then you’ll get a work plan: which items and colors first, which ones then?” A laser level helps get the pattern close to the wall.
To feel the rhythm
One can compare the work of art, Urhahn believes, with music. He also discussed this with the floor designer, who came to see. Urhahn: “His floor was a tight jazz beat, and now we’ve made an innovative remix of it as an ode to the Eastern Tunnel. The wall is hip hop. We hope passers-by can feel the rhythm during their arrival, departure or transfer.”
A version of this article was also published in NRC Handelsblad on April 16, 2022