You’ve probably caught a glimpse of his work, somewhere in some city. The large mesmerizing faces sculpted into the exteriors of buildings from Lisbon to Los Angeles, and Ponta Delgada to Paris, have captured the attention of city dwellers and the international art community alike. His gallery works are scooped up by collectors, and his creative potential has been lauded by Forbes magazine. He is Alexandre Farto (aka Vhils), a Portuguese urban artist who has catapulted to fame in the world of contemporary art.
Vhils’ works are all about exposing layers and creating textures. His massive urban portraits are carved, and sometimes blasted, into brick walls. His gallery works consist of peeling away layers of posters from city billboards, etching on metal, or carving into cork, to create abstract composites. His unique technique has been described as “creating by removing”.
Vhils was born Alexandre Farto in 1987 in Seixal, a community across the Tejo River from Lisbon. The industrial landscape of the area was an ideal canvas for Vhils who took to expressing himself via graffiti at a young age. He signed his impromptu imagery with the tag “Vhils”, which has no meaning except that V-H-I-L and S are his favorite and fastest letters to write with paint.
Since 2005, Vhils’ works have been presented in solo and group exhibitions around the world. He has contributed to major urban art projects such as the Cans Festival (London), Fame Festival (Grottaglie, Italy), Nuart Festival (Stavanger, Norway), Wool Festival (Covilhã) and Walk & Talk (Azores). In 2014, Fundação EDP celebrated Vhils with a solo exhibition at the Museum of Electricity in Lisbon.
Perhaps one of the more interesting acknowledgements of his creativity came in the last year, when mega Irish rock band U2 invited Vhils to direct a music video for their single “Raised by Wolves”.
At Portugal Confidential, we’re excited by Vhils’ artistry, and proud of the respect this Portugal-native is achieving on the international art scene. So, we asked the artist if he could spare a little time for us to get to know him better….
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Were you a creative kid?
I suppose I was creative, but nothing out of the ordinary. I wanted to be either an astronaut or an inventor, so I guess ending up as an artist is kind of something in between. I do remember drawing a lot, and one day my teacher called my mother in to tell her I was drawing too much instead of paying attention in class. I also used to carve my name into the wooden chairs. Then as a ten-year-old I discovered graffiti and nothing was ever the same, I began drawing and sketching compulsively.
What were some of your early graffiti works like? How did you transition to faces?
I started with letter-based graffiti and focused on that for a few years, then sometime around 2003/2004 I became interested in expanding my line of work beyond the graffiti scene and use public space to reach out to a wider audience. That was when I began working with stencils and doing more figurative work.
How do you approach your large site-specific wall murals?
“Scratching the Surface” is a specific project based on a carving technique applied to walls. It is mostly a process by which an image is created by removing some of the layers that form the wall, a type of reverse stenciling. In simple terms, I begin by projecting an image or composition I’ve created and then mark out a simple sketch on the wall, painting another two or three layers to give it depth and contrast. Then the carving itself begins, removing some of these layers first with rotary hammer drills, followed by chisels and hammers for the more fragile parts. The concept is to work with what the city provides, exposing some of the history which these layers have absorbed over time while also humanizing derelict spaces and giving people something to reflect about regarding the spaces they live in.
Your facial works are so mesmerizing. Is each work a portrait of a living person, or an image generated in your imagination?
This depends on the nature of the project. In some cases the images I use are composites created by overlapping two or three portraits which are merged and simplified on the computer, so they end up creating a new composition, but in specific projects such as those dealing with the reality of a particular community or which are specifically related to the location itself the pieces depict real people whom I’ve photographed.
Your large public works may be most accessible, but you work in other media too.
I like working with anything that can provide texture and rich layers capable of creating contrast. Besides walls, I’ve been working mostly with paper, metal, wood, styrofoam and cork. Materials are obviously important, but most of the time it comes down to the tools and processes you use to help bring them to life. In my case, these are intimately connected with the concept of vandal aesthetics I’ve brought over from graffiti. They are part of a process of creative destruction that helps highlight the beauty and poetics of the results and includes screen printing with acid and bleach, carving walls with explosives, using etching acid on metal and such.
Which large scale work is your favorite so far?
I really don’t have a favorite work, be it large or small, they are all special in their own way.
Which work has received the most reaction from the public?
It’s hard to say, it might be better to ask the public…
Because some of your works are on dilapidated buildings, does this mean your works are lost if the building is renovated or razed?
Yes, many of them have already been destroyed in fact, but this is part of the very process and concept I’m trying to highlight with my work: the ephemeral nature of all things. Having come from a background in graffiti I’m used to seeing works disappear overnight. That’s simply part of the game, so to speak. You learn to accept it. It only gives you more incentive to produce more work. Nothing lasts forever anyway, not even gallery-based work, and the important thing is what it might give people while it’s there.
Do you have creative heroes?
I find many people’s work inspiring but listing them is always hard. Growing up, I started out admiring other graffiti writers whose work I saw in the streets. I have to mention Banksy because his work changed my perception of how you could work in the public space, but I admire the work of many other artists: Os Gêmeos, Barry MacGee, Gordon Matta-Clark, Katharina Grosse, AkaCorleone, ±MaisMenos±, Faile, Interesni Kazki, Pixelpancho, Cyrcle, JR, Blu, Word 2 Mother, Conor Harrington, How & Nosm, among many others…
You’ve recently collaborated with U2 on a music video. How did that come about…?
They apparently already knew my work and got in touch through Lazarides Gallery, which represents my work in London. They were looking for artists from different backgrounds to work on the concept video which was to accompany their new album. It was a great opportunity and I didn’t hesitate for a minute. I was just about to go on holiday after a very intense year without a break and had to put everything on hold, but it was well worth it. I was very pleased with the outcome.
Vhils-directed video for U2’s single “Raised by Wolves”
You’ve had solo exhibitions across the globe. You’ve been recognized in Forbes Magazine “30 under 30 – Art & Style.” You’ve accomplished so much and, really, your career is just beginning. Where do you see yourself in 10 years from now?
Hopefully still working and still enjoying it…
To learn more about the artist, visit the Alexandre Farto website.