Vhils came into the world as Alexandre Farto in suburban Lisbon on February 15, 1987. The Portugal of his youth was in the midst of evolution following the 1974 revolution that ended fascist dictatorship. Stencils and murals ranging from the political to the commercial filled the streets of Vhils’ boyhood Lisbon.
The combination of artwork as social commentary and promised materialism made its impact on Vhils. He began writing graffiti in the 1990s at the age of 10. Tagging became a way to fill time, something to do on the way to school, a byproduct of friendship. When he reached 13, he became obsessed with train-bombing Lisbon’s suburban line. He wound up skipping a lot of school in that pursuit, joined the 2S/3D and LEG crews, and increased his “street reach.” Vhils expanded to lines outside of Lisbon, beyond Portugal, and finally across all of Europe.
He took up stencils in 2003 or 2004, also discovering stickers and paste-ups. Stencils proved a breakthrough for Vhils, allowing him to split his activities between conceptual work at home and physical technique in the street.
He went through multiple tags before settling on “Vhils” (pronounced veels). The name has no meaning, but simply uses letters that are his favorite”and the quickest”to write. Once he began exhibiting his work, he chose to maintain the tag next to his real name.
His artwork first gained attention in Lisbon for its uncommon technique”cutting through multiple layers of advertising posters in order to form a new image. Vhils described the concept of these “found layers” in this way:
“That was a method for bringing the past to the present, to think about the future, somehow. You could actually call it archaeology, a different kind of archaeology.”
Vhils’ breakthrough claim to fame occurred in 2008 when he produced a portrait next to a work by Banksy at the Cans Festival in London. A photographer for The Times captured a shot of Vhils creating the portrait, and the newspaper featured the photo on its front page.
Vhils’ technique and tools evolve as a work in progress. The very nature of his approach allows for discovering the unexpected as he removes layers of a wall or a poster. He insists that not knowing what patterns and images await him below the surface is key to his concept.
Vhils originally sought subject matter in magazines and newspapers. More recently, he has been working from photographs taken by himself or his team, usually within the neighborhoods where they’re working. The use of John and Jane Doe is Vhils’ response to the picture-perfect models presented by advertising, a way to humanize a cityscape by giving it a face of the ordinary.
A typical Vhils rendering originates in a sketchbook before he digitizes it on a computer. He breaks most of his portraits into three colors to provide depth, very much like stencil work. Sometimes the images are projected on the wall, sometimes painted first as a rough sketch. Vhils then begins the carving process employing chisels, hammers and drills, and the application of etching acid and bleach.
The medium is the message
The bottom line for Vhils is the method: an act of destruction as a creative force. His artistic philosophy follows the conversation begun by expressionists and abstract artists, where the technique and its result become inseparable. He attempts to create by removing; it is a conscious construction by way of destruction, whether shredding through billboard posters or drilling into a wall.
“People call it vandalism,” according to Vhils. “And I like the word and the concept of how people see it, and how simple it is to turn it into something people will call art or beautiful or whatever. I like to play with that, too, in the way you can reverse what people were expecting to see.”
The effect of advertising posters plastered one on top of another parallels his view of the experiences in one’s life, how a history of layered influences creates a social and cultural outlook. He relishes the idea of exposing the older layers to create a context between the historical and the contemporary.
Vhils has refused to show his face, claiming, “It’s a way of keeping the focus where it belongs, on the artwork.” He adds, “You still need to be true to your ideals and what you are doing and not lose the point.”
Vhils always returns to the means of his art when explaining his work. He can no more stray from his method than Van Gogh or Pollock:
“The message of my work”it’s in the process, it’s in the active drawing on a wall”expose and break it to create something. It’s almost like destroying to create, or using decay to create something people will look at in a different way.