Smashing through the Surface of Street Art: An Interview with Vhils
By James Buxton
They say the pen is mightier than the sword, in the case of Vhils, it would be the drill that is mightier than the gun.
In 2007, a young Portuguese graffiti artist started using drills to deface walls; except hewasn’t defacing them at all, he was creating faces in them. Since then Alexandre Farto a.k.a. Vhils has exploded (literally) onto the global street art
scene as one of the most innovative and ingenious artists working with the
environment today. His work has appeared all over the world, from Moscow to
Miami, Shanghai to Shoreditch and in multiple music videos, including U2’s
latest. By drilling into walls, Vhils transforms 2D surfaces into three-dimensional
works of art, exposing the textures, colours and shades that bring his
portraits to life.
promoting his latest solo show in London, Dissonance at Lazarides Rathbone, the ground-breaking artist tells us how stencils,
cities and citizens inspired him to pioneer his revolutionary technique.
When did you start making art outside?
Vhils: I became involved with the graffiti scene when I was ten years old, and then took it up
seriously when I was 13. For a few years this developed into an obsession – my
whole life was focused on graffiti. I used to spend every spare minute either
planning missions, sketching or going out and bombing, mostly trains. This was
a pivotal phase in my life and even today I see it as the most important
“school” I’ve ever attended. Graffiti taught me many things, and even today
most of what I do is somehow connected with what I learnt back then.
Around 2003/04 I decided to experiment with stencils and this was a
revelation. I immediately took to the technique, realising that with it you
could basically create a composition by superimposing different layers. It also
gave me the means to create street work that would be understood by a much
wider audience, and I liked this idea – as opposed to graffiti, which works in
a very restricted circle. Stencilling opened up many new directions and along
with graffiti, it became the backbone of what I do today.
Why did you start using a drill to create art?
In Portugal many advertising posters are left on the walls while new
ones are pasted over, and these create thick amalgamations of paper. One day I
realised I could simply remove these from walls and use them as a canvas, creating
compositions by carving through these layers, exploring the notion of reverse
stencilling I had become interested in. So instead of adding layers to create a
stencil composition, all I had to do was remove some of them.
As I cut through them, I realised these layers reflected different
phases of the city’s visual history, which was very similar to my belief that
people are also formed by different layers in a symbolic way – shaped by their
environment, their history, their culture, their individual and collective
carving though these layers of paper and bringing to light fragments of the
past became a way to express this notion of how we are shaped as individuals.
I look upon it as a type of symbolic archaeology. I then
decided to apply this technique to walls, and started the Scratching the
Surface series in late 2007. This notion of carving through things and using destructive means to
create also owes a lot to the world of graffiti, the whole idea of creative
How has your background influenced your
I grew up in Portugal, in an industrialised suburb called Seixal,
which is on the south bank of the Tagus river, across from the capital city of
Lisbon. My parents had moved there from the southern region of the Alentejo to
study and work in the city. The region used to be all farmlands, then from the
mid-20th century began turning into an industrial suburb.
When I was growing up in the 1990s there was still a lot of
farmland, but this was eventually absorbed by the urban sprawl. After the April 25 1974 revolution, which brought to an end the conservative dictatorship
which had ruled over Portugal for 50 years, the streets of the country were
taken over by thousands of revolutionary paintings and murals. Seixal and the
south bank were very left-wing areas, so walls were covered with these
fantastic murals. By the time I was growing up, though, most of these were
either faded and neglected, or had been covered with consumerist advertising,
reflecting the huge transformations the country underwent in the 1980s and
1990s, as it veered towards the center-right and joined the EU.
I was deeply affected by this visual contrast I saw in the streets.
Eventually, when graffiti boomed in the mid 1990s I realised another layer had been
added to the walls. This is where I first realised how time left its mark on
walls and how different times seem to add different layers to them. All this overlapping and these contrasts between opposites had an
enormous influence on my later work.
Could you talk about the evolution of your technique?
When I started exploring this technique of reverse stencilling, I
began looking at the stencil as a window that allowed me to dig into things and
reveal something of the past, which I began conceptualizing as a new type of
symbolic archaeology. I use the stencil as a window to reveal what lies beneath
the surface of things, exposing beauty through destructive means. It is deeply
connected with life in the urban environments most of us call home nowadays.
Is there a reason you focus mainly on portraits?
What I try to work on is
focus and reflect on the individuality of each one of us, and how
our identity is shaped with what surround us. In very basic terms, I believe that we as individuals are ultimately
shaped by all the different experiences that affect us and everything that
surrounds us, and in essence I see these imprints as a multiplicity of layers
that make us what we are.
I see our social reality,
which has become a hugely complex system, as also being the product of this
same process of layering, and I believe that by removing some of these layers,
we might be able to reach something more pure that we left behind. It is very
symbolic. I often explain it as a semi-archaeological dissecting of layers of
history and culture, trying to understand what lies beneath, searching for an
essence which has been lost somewhere along the path of material progress, and
realizing how ephemeral everything really is. By exposing these hidden layers
in the shape of poetic, human images, created in rough, dilapidated
environments, I aim at giving something back, restoring a degree of humanity to
the saturated urban environment.
There is a great presence
of people and especially portraits in my work, for a variety of reasons. The
most immediate is that my work revolves a lot around the notion of living in
cities, these large artificial environments we build to accommodate people and
where, paradoxically, there seems to be so little room for being human. My
portraits try to return some degree of humanity, in a very symbolic way, to the
urban environment. By placing them in neglected areas of the city, where the
glitzy light of development doesn’t fall upon, they reclaim a human dimension which
seems to have been lost somewhere along the way. Ultimately, the human face is
just so powerful and so expressive that I am drawn to it, especially as
contemporary art seems to have given up on it and has become more concerned
with abstract concepts that seem to be leading us nowhere.
The great majority of these are of
ordinary, unknown citizens. This was always my objective, to work with unknown
people, to somehow empower them. The idea is to contrast regular people with
the over-photoshopped, over-glamourised images presented by advertising, to
question the idea of these modern icons and render the city space more
humanised in some way, but with real people.
Does your equipment make it challenging to have a
finer resolution to an image?
I like to leave my work somewhat raw to be finished by
nature and the passage of time. Everything changes with time, so I like to work
alongside nature in this and not against it. This is a very important notion in
How does your work change when you make art for
Working in different environments with different
objectives requires different approaches. Working for a gallery show is very
different from working outdoors. First of all, people go to a show specifically
to see your work, whereas outdoors you really have to capture their attention,
amidst all the other visual noise out there. So you can focus more on detail,
on establishing a more intimate level of communication with people. In some
ways this is more demanding. Most of the time I try to establish a connection between these
two environments through the theme, the materials and colours, which are all
provided by the city – walls, wooden doors, billboards, etc. – which is where
the energy comes from, the chaos and waste the city gives us.
Where else have you painted and how was the culture
In the last few years I’ve been fortunate to have been
invited to many countries to work, develop site-specific projects or
commissioned pieces, and do solo and collective shows.
The interesting thing about travelling and working
abroad is there are always differences but also similarities between us. I like
focusing on these issues and determining what they are. My work has been
reflecting on this model of development that determines life in the urban
environments, which is imprinting an increasingly uniform pattern around the
So, with these travels I have been able to observe
directly how this is happening and what its consequences are for the people who
live there. The same model is being applied to a variety of cultures,
regardless of their differences. I find this both fascinating and terrifying.
On the one hand we are becoming closer, which is good, but on the other we are
erasing cultural differences which were a vital part of our human history…