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A Public Art Project Shows You the Colors You Should Be Eating

Tattfoo Tan's murals draw from the colors of fruits and vegetables, and offer an inspiring counterpoint to food advertising and billboards.

Tattfoo Tan, a Malaysian-born artist who lives in Staten Island, New York, takes regular trips to the Union Square Greenmarket. After photographing his purchases, he started using Photoshop's eyedropper tool to extract 88 colors that would best represent 88 different fruits and vegetables. He called it the Nature Matching System.

The intense colors are intended to represent a kind of natural nutrition label—an indicator of naturally occurring phytochemicals and beneficial nutrients. "It is not so much technical as it is conceptual," he told me. "It’s more about the idea that color plays such an important role in nutrition."

In 2008, Tattfoo had schoolchildren paint the panels and, along with the New York City Department of Transportation and the DUMBO Improvement District, installed a mural—8 feet high and 70 feet long—down under the Manhattan Bridge. There was a small message about the project, explaining the Nature Matching System, but you could easily walk by and see it just as colorful eye candy in the urban environment. Tattfoo says that's what he intended: It wasn't exclusively functional, but, for those who took the time to stop and look, you could find information and inspiration.

The mural was taken down after 11 months and Tattfoo is now working on a new Nature Matching System mural on the playground of PS971 in Brooklyn, which should be finished this summer. The projects are visible, public counterpoints to prevailing food marketing and design. They remind us to eat fruits and vegetables without being didactic. For that alone, it's an interesting model for nutrition education that could be replicated in other neighborhoods.

Charts and top photograph courtesy of Tattfoo Tan. Botton photo (cc) by Flickr user dumbonyc.

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