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Art of Destruction: Interview with Vhils

Although I did not write about him so far, Alexandre Farto aka Vhils is recently one of my favorite urban artists. With his amazing and very popular Scratching The Surface artworks, he tries “focusing on the act of destruction to create” as he told me in the interview he gave me some days ago…

uac: In the last months and years, you and especially your artworks became very popular around the world. A lot of people wrote articles about you, published photos and videos about your artworks and were – like me – fascinated about the way you create your works. Although, nobody really knows something about you. Could you explain who you are, where you´re from and how you got in contact with the so-called urban art?

Vhils: I was born and grew up in Portugal, just outside the town of Seixal, on the south bank of the river Tagus, across the city of Lisbon. This was during a period of great changes. The country had just joined the European Union, leaving behind the 1974 Revolution which had brought an end to the fascist dictatorship that had ruled Portugal for nearly 50 years.

I grew up in an environment which had been deeply affected by the Revolution, as it was the main industrial hub for the capital with a very strong influence of the left and extreme-left. The Revolution had taken over the walls as a medium of communication, and there were murals, paintings, stencils etc. all over the place.

I try focusing on the act of destruction to create; this is a notion I first came across in Graffiti…

Then, during the 1980s and 1990s, after joining the European Union, Portugal started its process of development. I grew up with the contrast between these utopian murals and the developing capitalist society visually based on mass-advertising. I was deeply affected by the sharp contrast created between the decadent revolutionary murals and their ideals and the glamorous appeal of advertising.

The poetics of decay that resulted from it left an enduring influence on me. In the late 1990s I got into graffiti and took to the streets and trains, this became my artistic background. Graffiti was a language that enabled me to express and explore many things, and eventually enabled me to observe and portray the complexities of the urban environment, as I see them.

For a few years I was really into the train scene and bombing, then I started thinking about where I wanted to take my work and I started exploring other things, wanting to take things to a different level – that’s when I first started experimenting with stencils and other tools which allowed me to reach a wider audience.

Art of Destruction: Interview with Vhils

uac: It’s amazing to see how your artworks, specially the wall-works, are created. Is it basically right to say that you destroy something to recreate a more interesting, a more beautiful thing? How would you describe the development process of your artworks?

Vhils: I try focusing on the act of destruction to create; this is a notion I first came across in Graffiti, and it has been very influential in my work. I believe we are all formed of different sets of layers: personal, social, cultural, historical and so on.

Taking materials form the street and other places and changing them in order to communicate…

Our social system is the product of this same process of layers, and I believe that by removing and exposing some of these layers, in fact by destroying them, we might be able to reach something purer, something of what we used to be and have forgotten all about. This is obviously in a symbolical sense. So I like to see it as a kind of archaeological work of dissecting the layers of history and time and exposing something which lies beneath all the noise, the clutter, the dirt, searching for an essence which has been lost somewhere along the way.

This process of removal started out by cutting into layers of pasted posters I removed from the streets, and has become rougher and rougher. I enjoy working with different and new tools and am constantly on the look-out for new processes and media. Most of my work is based on experimentation and because I aim at creating contrasts between these different layers, I like experimenting with tools that provide the best result for what I am trying to express.

Taking materials form the street and other places and changing them in order to communicate, turning them into the very tools that expose, confront, question the reality of our urban life. I work them over with these rough tools, like etching acid or bleach on wood or other materials I have found in the street, or old paper or old billboard posters, or I screen-print with acid. I use hammers, chisels and pneumatic drills to sculpt those stencilled pieces on walls.

The process is very similar in all these techniques I resort to: working with the layers of the materials or objects and from this confrontation, I create images. Of course you never really have full control of all the aspects of that creation, as you don’t know what images and patterns lie beneath the layers. But this is a key concept in my work, and I really enjoy working with randomness, highlighting the ephemeral nature of things, of everything really.

Art of Destruction: Interview with Vhils

uac: You created not only those wall images, but also prints, wood-reliefs, paper and metal works. Why do you decided to work on the streets, in public space? Is there any fundamental intention?

Vhils: Yes, of course, public space is where I first started working when I got into graffiti. I believe that for my work, both the unexpectedness of its environment and the audience it reaches makes sense, especially because I work with materials that this same urban space gives me.

I like the idea of working with the city as the prime material, with the aim of exposing the fragility of what we take for granted and regard as indestructible, and unchangeable. I aim at using the urban environment itself and really making it a part of the piece and to involve all the people who live in this same space. To make the intervention a real, non-artificial, part of the environment.

uac: Your Scratching The Surface artworks seem to be something like reverse stencil artworks. How did you get the idea? Are there any role models? What influenced you?

Vhils: Well, through the idea and the process of stencilling, obviously. But to claim particular influences is always very difficult for me, as I honestly believe in the idea that we are constantly being influenced and changed in many ways by literally everything and everyone that surrounds us: the environment I grew up in, the people I’ve met, my country, our culture etc.

With me the creative process is not always the result of a rational act…

Of course these can be both conscious and unconscious influences, but it makes it very hard to pinpoint exactly where your ideas really come from. Who knows? With me the creative process is not always the result of a rational act – most of my work derives from experimentation, and believe me, most of this research and experimentation with tools, materials and media go wrong. Of course, I like things that go wrong, as I stand to gain very much from them, both artistically, aesthetically and on a personal level as well. I learn; which is something that is deeply important for me. I learn with everything, and I hope my work reflects this.

Art of Destruction: Interview with Vhils

uac: Although it’s hard for me to imagine that your artworks could match with artworks by other artists, I would like to know with which artists you would like to work with/ collaborate in future. Do you have any idols or something like that?

Vhils: There’s too many of them to name, but I have been admiring the work of Gordon Matta-Clark and Katherina Grosse, but also Banksy, JR, Blu, Conor Harrington, Word 2 Mother, NeckFace, Faile, Gaia, Barry McGee, Os Gêmeos, among many, many others.

Everything and anything can and has influenced me, not only the great names in the art world or famous people or events. I believe we are the result of all the interactions we have undergone throughout our entire lives, both the good as well as the bad. We are simply a by-product of all the people who we have met and have interacted with up until the present moment. From the nurse who first slapped my arse when I was born, to the guy who runs the corner-shop where I get my groceries everyday…

uac: What are your plans for the future? What do we have to expect from you to see?

Vhils: The future really depends on all of these influences which are leaving a mark on me at this present time and the outcome of these influences at a later stage of my work…I can’t really see into the future right now…

uac: Thanks for the nice interview. I hope to see you some day in Berlin…

For more info about him, visit alexandrefarto.com.

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Urban Art Core is your independent, international source for street art, graffiti and urbanism from around the world, mainly focused on stories, news and actions taking place in urban environments.

It spreads the urban Berlin voice loud and clear to metropolises far and wide and celebrates the urban arts, urban exploration movement and guerilla art interventions with news about artists, trends and exhibitions, since 2009.

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Written by Brenna Urban.

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