“A simple spark can destroy the foundations of civilization.” Ominous words, but Alexandre Farto, aka Vhils, has built his reputation on unleashing graffiti art and works of creative destruction on the streets of Lisbon. Today, the 30-year-old continues to “interact” with the urban environment, chiseling hauntingly real portraits and using deftly controlled pyrotechnic explosions to rip away the “glossy varnish that covers the surface of things.” Call it aesthetic vandalism or experimental archaeology, but it will stop you in your tracks.
Raised in Seixal, an industrial suburb and communist stronghold across the Tagus River from Lisbon, Vhils points to the rapid development and transformation of the capital in the 1980s and ’90s as strong influences on his work. Growing up, he witnessed a “disastrous economic switch” for Portuguese society when the country turned its back on the manufacturing sector to focus more on the service economy.
“Becoming an artist was never really a conscious choice,” says Vhils, the son of an accountant and a teacher. And even though he grew up at a time when graffiti was frowned upon — a reminder of the political scrawl and upheaval from the 1974 revolution — he got his start as an illegal graffiti maker at 13. Eventually he made his way to the University of the Arts in London, where he honed his carving skills, learning to use chisels, etching acid, bleach, drills and other tools. He kicked open the doors to the international art scene in 2008, when one of his relief portraits appeared alongside a work by the celebrated street artist Banksy at London’s Cans Festival.
Explosive charges are rigged to a plaster wall and detonated, instantly transforming banal facades into arresting works of art.
Lisbon witnessed a boom of illegal graffiti at the beginning of the millennium, according to Ricardo Campos, a Portuguese social scientist and visual anthropologist. But when António Costa was elected Lisbon’s mayor in 2007, he worked to alter the perception of urban art in the capital. The energy and prevalence of this countercultural force, along with the opening in 2008 of the Gallery of Urban Art (GAU) — Costa’s brainchild — helped to legitimize Lisbon’s street art by recognizing it as an authentic art form, provided it respects other public art that already exists.
GAU was conceived in response to the tagging and “bombing” (painting many surfaces as rapidly as possible) taking place throughout Lisbon’s historic Bairro Alto neighborhood. The city offered talented street artists the chance to ply their craft on sanctioned billboards and walls. And GAU’s small staff set about “educating people inside and outside city hall about the importance of graffiti,” says Inês Machado, the gallery’s coordinator.
In 2010 and 2011, Vhils worked with GAU on the Crono Project, an initiative to bring local and international graffiti maestros to Lisbon — including OSGEMEOS (identical twins from Brazil) and Blu from Italy — to convert deteriorating building facades into towering canvases. Machado adds that Vhils also helped conceive of Underdogs, a cultural platform created in 2010 to promote the work of Portuguese and other “urban-inspired contemporary artists,” such as INTI, Anthony Lister and SAINER, through public installations, indoor exhibitions and print sales.
Vhils says he doesn’t create art for its own sake, but rather sees it as “a means to an end, to try to contribute positively to this chaotic world.” And he is continually searching for novel ways to accomplish his objective. His latest, a form of “explosive” etching, has been his most challenging endeavor to date. He partnered with a Portuguese pyrotechnics specialist, and after months of experiments — because “even the specialist was treading new ground,” he tells OZY — they devised the perfect recipe for making murals using explosives.
“Every detail had to be just right. If one step failed, the whole process had to be changed again,” Vhils explains. After meticulous prep work, the process — and the product — is incredible to behold. Explosive charges are rigged to a plaster wall and detonated, instantly transforming banal facades into arresting works of art. In one instance, Vhils teamed up with Portuguese hip-hop/soul band Orelha Negra to produce a video of his exploding graffiti, and it quickly went viral.
Campos says that Vhils has “radically shifted how graffiti is conceived of” in Portugal. And because his murals appear in 50 cities around the world, from Moscow to Rio de Janeiro, and he was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list in 2015, Vhils has established himself as one of today’s most prominent contemporary street artists, bringing recognition and tourist dollars to the small country. Indeed, part of his mission, Vhils says, is to “spread the image of a modern, cool, urban and cosmopolitan” Portugal and to counter any negative perceptions — conservative, poor, rural — that may cling to the country from the past.
At heart, though, Alexandre Farto remains an urban explorer, peeling back the accumulated layers of our surroundings, exposing what’s been buried or forgotten, forcing us to think a little deeper about the kind of world we’re trying to build — and to search for the messages hidden just below the surface.
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