Art style

Street art made of explosives and chisels: meet Vhils, Portugal’s “urban archaeologist”

“I say I’m kind of an urban archaeologist because I basically carve on city walls.”

Alexandre Farto, alias Vhils, is considered one of the best urban artists in the world.

Like many street artists, he started painting illegal graffiti when he was 13 years old. But at the age of 16, the Portuguese artist was already wondering about what he was doing and looking for his signature.

“I wanted to push what I was doing into the public space,” he says. “I kind of realized that we were all adding layers to the walls…they were piling up the layers of changes.

“I had the idea: instead of adding, I would remove the layers of paint on the walls.”

So, using hammers, chisels, knives and even explosives, Vhils began carving and etching his art on the walls of Lisbon.

“I would go and break down the wall, extract and expose the layers that were inside the city somehow.”

He also used his destructive style for billboards and other abandoned surfaces like doors and demolished buildings.

“I would go and vandalize them, sort of, but creating portraits of someone who lived in the city… It was a tribute to everyday heroes who live in cities that go from A to B, that make run the whole city and make them visible.

A big break with Banksy

Around the age of 19, Vhils left to study in London and got his big break when he was invited to perform at the Can’s Festival, a 2008 event that brought together some of the biggest names in street art.

During this event, Vhils had the chance to be featured alongside the elusive and legendary entertainer Banksy. The visibility he gained through this festival propelled his career and showed that his art could resonate outside of Portugal.

One of his first notable projects was in Rio de Janeiro, where a local “Morro” (favela) was being demolished.

“People were feeling and they weren’t being heard, they were being expropriated,” says Vhils, who worked with an NGO to carve the faces of local people into the ruins of their homes.

“Eventually it brought attention to the situation and it created a bridge between the community and the way the city looked at them…I realized that what I was doing could actually illuminate, bring attention to a topic. For people to be heard.

Vhils then opened his own studio, to build a talented team that could help with the complicated logistics of gigantic murals and the use of explosives.

With his team, they have since sculpted portraits on walls around the world, from Shanghai and Paris to Los Angeles and Mexico City.

Find out more about Vhils’ destructive and explosive techniques in this episode of Creators, a series in which we enter some of the best creative minds in the world. Watch the video in the media player above.

Photo “Cans Festival – VHILS and Banksy” by Tristan Appleby is licensed via Flickr under (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Photo “Cans Festival” by RJ is licensed via Flickr under (CC BY-SA 2.0)