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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.

Currently 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 experiences. So 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 vandalism.


How has your background influenced your work?

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 my work.

How does your work change when you make art for galleries?

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 different?

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 world.

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…


flickr

Palácio Nacional da Pena / Pena National Palace - architects Nicolau Pires and Willhelm Ludwig Eschwege, São Pedro de Penaferrim, Sintra, Portugal