Vhils, whose real name is Alexandre Farto, started painting graffiti at the age of 13. During the 1980s and 1990s, Seixal, the industrial suburb of Lisbon where he grew up in, had undergone an intensive development process that profoundly affected the city. Reflecting these changes, the city's walls had witnessed the superimposition of political murals, advertising posters, graffiti and other media, each expressing its own ideas and ideologies. Searching for a new approach that could interact with what the city had to offer, Vhils shifted his practice from graffiti to one that carved into these surfaces directly, using them as a new medium. Based on the stencil technique, the young artist started to carve shapes and lines, from which faces and the walls' past emerged. From then on, he was to carve his giant figures around the world, from his native Lisbon (where he still lives today) to distant locations such as São Paulo, Los Angeles, Sydney or Hong Kong.
Creating a bond
«Crossing paths with one of Vhils' sculpted portraits is a different experience each time. The faces that are created move, changing according to the light, depending on the angle from which one sees them. Parisians can experiment this with those sculpted at the Necker Hospital in the 15th arrondissement: depending on the pavement on which one is, shadows form, the weather also influences the face's mood. «Each work is different; you never know what you are going to get when you start carving. Some materials are more porous than others and let the humidity in.»
What is striking is the fragility. The reversed stencil seems so precarious, ephemeral like most of the walls which he carves. It is these bonds, these bridges that Vhils looks to consolidate. Echoes of his childhood that separate him from other graffiti artists, of Lisbon's rehabilitations boosted by European funds that then flowed into the country…»
- Jérôme Badie, Next Libération
Artistic approach and technique
Walls are his favourite medium. After the «Carnation Revolution» in 1974, walls became in a way witnesses to the evolution of Portuguese cities. Each wall tells the story of a given place. With the development into a consumerist society, these walls became covered in advertising posters, then graffiti, followed by new layers of posters, and so on. Vhils is interested in walls brimming with history, yet neglected. Instead of adding extra layers to the walls, the artist decided to «remove in order to reveal…». With his Scratching the Surface project, Vhils carves the portraits of anonymous people onto the walls of the city, thus giving back value to these neglected and abandoned walls.
Before starting the bas-relief carving process, the artist traces out his portraits with paint. With the help of chisels, rotary hammer drills and other tools, Vhils starts to scratch the surface of the wall, successively revealing the different layers that constitute it. The approach may seem abrupt and violent at first but according to Vhils the result gains in poetry and expressivity – little by little, a portrait is revealed. Different expressions and emotions emanate from these portraits that express how the inhabitants feel the city. The interplay of light and shade accentuates the depth of these faces. With this work, the artist therefore gives an identity to the wall. His artworks show the close relationship between the city and its dwellers – how a city shapes its inhabitants and how the inhabitants sculpt a city.
However, his work is not limited to walls. The artist explores and experiments with other techniques and mediums such as carved wooden doors, acid-burnt screen prints, portraits carved out of polystyrene blocks and sculpted advertising posters salvaged from city streets. All of his artworks share a common point: that of showing the reciprocal influences between a city and its inhabitants.