The other night I was home reading blogs, when my good friend Thomas Spiteri messaged me… “Dude… Vhils is in Australia!! He’s in Sydney” he said. If he’d been speaking I know he would have been screaming, I could tell he was excited, and shit so was I! I immediately started googling and found out where he was going to be and quickly emailed the gallery.
Vhils needs no introduction. If you don’t know him or his work, you should, so google it. Here’s the interview. Because of the heads up Thomas gave me I let invited him to ask a couple of the questions. Here’s what Vhils had to say!
LM: What does your name mean?
Vhils: Vhils is just a name I came up with when I was writing graffiti. It has no meaning, it was purely chosen for the letters, which were some of my favourite to write. Like most other writers I went through a few tags before I settled on this one and when I began showcasing my work in exhibitions and galleries I decided to use it alongside my real name.
LM: What tools do you use to make your amazing chiseled sculptures?
Vhils: For walls I use spray paint and ordinary paint for the rough sketch I trace, then hammers, chisels and Makita drills to carve the pieces. For other media, like wood, I use a Dremel rotary tool and chisels. The billboards are cut with a cutting knife and the metal plates are engraved and corroded by acid and then are exposed to the elements to blur the image and gain some rust, etc.
LM: How do you select the characters for your walls? Do they have any meaning behind them?
Vhils: When I first started out, I would use images I cut out from magazines and newspapers, but today I mostly use photographs me or someone from my team have taken in the streets of the place we’re working in. The great majority of these are of ordinary, unknown citizens. This was always my objective, to work with unknown people, to somehow empower them. The idea is to contrast regular people with the over-photoshopped, over-glamourised images presented by advertising, to question the idea of these modern icons and render the city space more humanised in some way, but with real people. In some projects the people portrayed have a strong connection with the place the piece was carved in, like the inhabitants of the Morro da Providência slum in Rio, whose houses had been pulled down in a major urban renewal project the local government is undertaking with huge consequences for the community. These were carved in what remained of their old homes, so the connection here is deeply emotional.
TS: We see your mesmerising murals appearing all over the world. Does the culture of each country play a big part in the inspiration behind each artwork?
Vhils: Yes it does, even when it’s not immediately apparent. The process and tools are essentially the same, and the conceptual approach likewise, but there is always a connection with the place I’m working in at the time – from the general feeling the city or location give me, to local colours and materials. The people portrayed are mostly local as I stated above, and in most cases this is the most direct connection with the place.
TS: Can you tell us a bit about your transition from the typical street art/graffiti tools to what you are using recently?
Vhils: Most of what I’m doing today actually stems from my graffiti days. This includes some of the tools but also some of the ideas behind my work. I’ve always liked working with abrasive tools and materials, and this comes from the more extreme side of graffiti, from carving tags out with cutters and etching acid, for example. Most people think of spray paint when thinking of graffiti, but for a writer anything that helps get your name up does the job, whether it’s scratching it into a surface with a spark plug or corroding it with acid, brake fluid, acetone, etc. When I first started working with stencils I was just doing the ordinary thing, creating images and giving them depth and contrast by superimposing different layers. The idea of reversing this process – to create images by cutting into surfaces and removing layers – came as I began using old billboard posters which in Portugal are commonly pasted over each other and create these thick amalgamations, which I started cutting into to create compositions. I also realised I could blend this process with the notion of creative vandalism I used to follow when I was doing more hard-core graffiti. One thing led to another and I moved on to walls, where I began using power tools to carve pieces. The basic concept is still the same, though: using destructive means in order to create. I’m always on the lookout for interesting tools and processes.
LM: Where’s your favourite place that you’ve painted/worked?
Vhils: I always feel unable to give a straight answer to this question! I’ve enjoyed working in so many places, cities and countries, and in so many different circumstances, that it becomes very hard to chose one as my all-time favourite. The projects I worked on in Shanghai and Rio de Janeiro last year were very special, both due to the circumstances and the time my team and I spent there (2 months in China and 1 month in Brazil), but I’ve enjoyed all the others just as much. I’m really enjoying working in Sydney at the moment!
LM: Where do you work from and what is your studio space like?
Vhils: As I’ve been spending a lot of time on the road, travelling between places, I do a lot of the planning and digital work in many odd places, including on trains, airport lounges, etc. In the case of Sydney, for instance I already had a few things and ideas organised before I arrived here, but the main physical work was done here in the place where the exhibition is to take place. I’ve just recently finished setting up a new studio in Lisbon though, and that’s where I’m planning on doing most of the work from now on. It used to be an old car repair workshop and has lots of space and even a goods lift to carry materials and pieces to the basement where these can be stored. It still needs a bit of work, though, but we’ll get there.
LM: What has been the highlight (or highlights) of your career to date?
Vhils: First of all to realise that people like my work and are interested in what I’m doing – this is hugely rewarding in itself. And then the opportunity this path has given me to travel around the world and connect with so many different people and different cultures, being able to see what we share in common and also what makes us different and just being able to experience it in person. I have learnt a lot over the last few years.
TS: Who and what inspires Vhils?
Vhils: Many things and many people have inspired me throughout the years. I always find it difficult to be precise, as I am often impressed or inspired by things that seem trivial at the time, or things I’m not even consciously aware of. I’m very interested in history and cities and landscapes and travelling and different cultures and music and films and too many other things to mention. I like the feeling of being a stranger in a city and just watching how things unfold, how people live and behave and react, how things work or don’t work, how things are organised and done. I like the chaos of the urban environment and the different contrasts the city offers.
TS: Can you tell us a bit about the process of your street murals?
Vhils: In basic terms, I start out by working on different elements in my sketchbook and then I digitise these and work them on the computer. I usually divide images into three colours to give the image some depth – this is basically like working on a stencil. I then either project these onto the wall and paint them, or paint them directly, depending on the complexity and the scale. I use black and shades of grey, then mark out the negative spaces in the portrait. I use regular paint, then spray paint, then a brush. Then with the help of my team, we start the carving process, using chisels, hammers and drills. For the larger pieces we also use a scissor lift or elevated platform.
TS: Tell us a bit about the earlier years of Vhils, What was the street art/graffiti scene like in Portugal growing up and how did you become the artist you are today?
Vhils: I got into graffiti when I was about 10 years old, and then took it up seriously when I was thirteen. At first it was just tagging on the way to school and so on, then it became an obsession and I began skipping school to go bomb trains. I lived close to one of Lisbon’s main suburban lines and for a few years that became my world: bombing, studying the yards, planning missions on my own or hooking up with other writers. Then I joined the 2S/3D and LEG crews and started venturing out further afield – painting trains in other lines around Lisbon, then the rest of Portugal and finally travelling around Europe just to paint trains. Although I’m still into train writing and bombing, I’ve always been interested in trying out new things and experimenting with new tools and materials. The scene in Lisbon back then was mostly focused on bombing with a few good writers also doing walls and hall of fame. There were a few other people who had been doing stencils and other stuff for years but it wasn’t so popular and then sometime around 2003 the street art thing exploded and people started getting into it, influenced by what was taking place in Barcelona, which is not so far. I learnt later that there had been a thriving stencil scene in Lisbon in the mid 1980s, influenced by the Paris wave, but this had died out before my time. Graffiti had also started in the late 1980s, and boomed around 1997. Around 2003/2004 I began experimenting with stencils, paste ups and stickers. I immediately became aware of the stencil’s potential. It allowed me to focus on the conceptual side at home, then simply focus on painting while in the street. It also enabled me to explore other imagery and create other types of work. I also realised the results were much more accessible to ordinary people and I became interested in exploring this line of communication. Things just evolved naturally from there. I also became interested in exhibiting my work and started organising a few amateurish shows with friends, and this eventually led to the creation of the Visual Street Performance in 2004/05, which became an annual collective show (held until 2009) and the biggest graffiti/street art show in Portugal to date. In 2006 I was invited to join the Vera Cortês Art Agency, one of Lisbon’s leading art galleries which was a great break for me, and the following year I moved to London to study at Central St Martins and things just picked up from there.
LM: If you had to give one bit of advice to a street artist starting out, what would it be?
Vhils: This is always tough to answer, as people and the circumstances in which they live and work are very different. I think if people are both serious and passionate about their work they will keep at it regardless of the setbacks. So if you believe in what you do and think you have it, persevere. I also think it’s important for people to realise that street art is what you do in the street – non commissioned, unauthorised work – there is no pay-off but personal gratification and that’s the way it should be. Don’t start putting up work in the street because you’re looking to get signed up by a gallery. Gallery work is another kettle of fish altogether. And so is public art, which is mainly what we’re doing nowadays with these festivals and commissioned pieces. I’m fortunate to work in all these settings, but I still also put up work in the street, illegally, and still feel there is nothing like it. So, above all, just enjoy it.
LM: We’re excited about your show Dissolve, What do you have planned for the rest of 2013?
Vhils: Thanks, so am I. After Sydney I’ll be travelling over to Fremantle in Western Australia to do a few walls. After that I fly out to Puerto Rico to work on some more walls, and then down to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, where I will have a solo show in April and will publish a book on the project I did there last year in Morro da Providência, one of the city’s oldest slums. After that it’s back to Lisbon for a short while to start working on several other projects. Fortunately there’s no lack of interesting projects, and I’ve got plenty to keep me busy well into next year.
Vhils has a show opening tomorrow night in Sydney tomorrow night. See my next post.