Interview with Alexandre Farto, a.k.a Vhils. He talks about portuguese mural movement, urban environment history, train bombing, and the art of destruction.
The street art of Alexandre Farto alias Vhils
FC: Tell us about your growing up and the discovery of graffiti in Portugal.
Vhils: I was born in Portugal, in the area of the south-bank, across the river from Lisbon. This was in 1987, when Portugal had just joined the European Union, in the aftermath of the 1974 Revolution which the majority of the country was then trying to forget. It was a suburban area with a very unique history as the main industrial hub for the capital, where all the political movements from the left and extreme-left had a very powerful presence. Because I believe this had a very strong influence on my work, it’s important to briefly contextualise it: the 25 April 1974 Revolution brought an end to the fascist dictatorship which had run the country for nearly 50 years. After the revolution, the streets were taken over by murals, paintings and stencils, both political and non-political. It was quite a unique popular painting movement, more like South America than Europe. As the country veered more and more to the left, there was fear that it would become a European Cuba, so with the support of Western Europe and the US it was put back on a moderate path towards a centre-right democracy. There was an immediate and striking contrast between those utopian revolutionary murals and all the ads for consumer-goods that started going up everywhere. In those days no one really valued those paintings, so I grew up amid the decadent presence of these murals that still claimed a better world. In the late 1990s I started writing graffiti which had first arrived in the late 1980s. It was then growing very fast and today it’s massive, especially street and train bombing. Lisbon is still quite easy to paint in, compared to other European cities, even if the city council started a massive clean-up campaign last year and is now enforcing anti-graffiti measures, especially around the centre and the old night-life district of Bairro Alto, which was a bit like Barcelona before the crack-down. Even so, you can still paint in the centre in some places. There is a vibrant scene there even if it’s not organized at all – there are hardly any galleries, collectors or brands cashing in on it yet, which on the one hand is rather good, as it’s still very much an art for art sake type of thing.
FC: So you started with graffiti. Tell us more about your graffiti background.
Vhils: I first started writing graffiti when I was 10, but only got into it seriously when I was 13. At first it was just something to do with your friends or on your own, instead of staying at home all day. There was nothing else behind it apart from having fun. It was good, doing your own thing and belonging to a crew and all that. It was the beginning of something; you didn’t need a reason to do it. I really got into train bombing and was really involved in this scene, painting panels and so on in the main suburban Lisbon train lines, and eventually the rest of Portugal. The next step was to start travelling around Europe to paint trains. Then I started exploring and experimenting with stencils and other tools and media, and thinking more and more about what I was doing, what I wanted to do, and where I wanted to go with this.
FC: What's your goal and where do you want to bring us through your art? Can you explain the idea your art of destruction?
Vhils: My work is really concerned with trying to question the reality we live in, in these urban environments where most of us live now, so it deals with social urbanity. I’m really trying to focus on the act of destruction as a creative force in itself. This is something I’ve brought over from graffiti, as a process of creation, a means to create by removing, decomposing or destroying. I believe that, as social animals, we are all composed and shaped by a variety of different influences which are layered onto us. We are formed by these social and historical layers which are provided by the environment and context we grow up and live in. This same environment can also be seen as being composed by a vast amount of layers which have shaped it into what it is today. In a very symbolical way, I believe that by removing some of these layers and leaving other, deeper and therefore older, layers, we can expose some of the things which have been forgotten or discarded along the way. Some of these might be truly important or valuable, or even just interesting or whatever. These lost memories compose who we are today.
The speed of recent technological development hasn’t allowed us to digest and reflect on the changes that have been imposed on us. I try to highlight this process and highlight the poetics of decadence brought on by this fast pace that makes us lose things along the way. The process of destruction can be seen here as a semi-archaeological work that aims at understanding what lies beneath the surface of things, and ends up giving evidence on how ephemeral things really are. In my work, this process of removal has become rougher and rougher, once it started from dissecting posters and moved on to excavating walls, with tools such as etching acid, bleach, pneumatic drills…It all comes down to raising issues, making people think, question, search…
FC: What's the meaning of your name Vhils? How did you find it?
For me were the best and fastest letters to write at the time.
FC: Can you name an artist whose work you respect and admire
INXS, Rilo, Viktor, Banksy, Blu, etc...
FC: What's your taste in movie, books and music
Best Movie: 2046 and All Dirty Hands.
Best Album - All JazzMattazzzz, J dilla Donut.
Best Book- Jean Paul Sartre - The Age of Reason
FC: You work with many types of supports and materials, what tools do you use?
Vhils: I’ve been experimenting with many media which don’t fit in your regular art tool kit. Because I aim at creating contrasts between the different layers that compose things, I like experimenting with tools which can remove layers and create the contrasts that help me in questioning the reality of our urban life. I enjoy working with randomness, and this randomness can be found beneath the layers of any material, whether it’s a wall or a massive overlaying of advertising posters. You can cut away at the layers to create your image but you don’t have full control over all the aspects of that creation, as you don’t know what images and patterns lie beneath them. This is a key concept in my work. The processes I follow also reflect the very ephemeral essence of life contained in the materials I use. Materials change with time and my pieces change along with them; the tools I use often catalyse this change and I’m interested in making this a part of the piece itself. So there is nothing static about them, it’s an ongoing process with nature. In order to do so I resort to several types of processes and tools which might provide interesting results: painting and cutting up old billboard posters, screen-printing with acid and bleach, using etching acid or bleach on wood and other materials I pick up in the street like pieces of walls from derelict buildings and so on. I use hammers, chisels and pneumatic drills to sculpt walls. All these techniques and tools revolve around a very similar work process: the removal of the layers that form the materials or objects and exposing the resulting contrasts as images.
FC: Can you explain for our readers the message of you art?
Vhils: There are quite a few messages underlying my work, but they’re all somewhat connected with trying to question the urban reality we live in and the system which supports it and shapes our lives. I’m interested in raising issues, although not in providing answers to them. I like to make people reach their own conclusions by providing them with certain clues which might raise their awareness on these issues which I believe are important. Basically each series has its own particular message but what I’m overall trying to achieve, as far as the process is concerned, is to focus on the act of destruction as a creative drive. This is something I’ve brought over from graffiti. I believe we are all composed of many different layers of social and historical fabric which ultimately compose and form us. The environment we live in is the product of this same process of layering, and I believe that by removing and exposing some of these layers, by destroying them in fact, we might be able to reach something we have lost along the way. It’s all very symbolical. Take it as a semi-archaeological work of dissecting layers, trying to understand what lies beneath the surface of things and realising how ephemeral everything really is.
FC: Thank you Vhils
Alexandre Farto aka Vhils on FatCap
Vilhs official site