1 December 2012

Vhils: Graffiti Art as Architectural Archaeology

Disintegrating walls and peeling posters may not be everyone’s cup of tea. In fact I would venture that to most people they are a rather dispiriting sign of urban decay.  Yet to one artist the sight of crumbling architecture and aged billboards posted one atop another atop another are a creative spur. Vhils creates art not by adding but by taking away.

Vhils, born Alexandre Fartos in 1987 in Portugal, chips, slices, cuts and hammers his remarkable art out of the sides of buildings.  It started when he was a youth in Lisbon.  Portugal’s recent history meant that billboards advertising expensive consumer goods could be pasted directly over posters of socialist ideals left over from the 1974 revolution in a layer which could, depending on the amount of posters, centimeters thick.

The young artist began to slice in to them and very quickly developed both technique and his distinctive style. Faces, more often than not of people he had seen on the streets rather than celebrities, emerged from the incised stratums of paper and plaster.

Often there are no deposits of paper-based advertising, just crumbling plaster and paintwork.  Vhils has been known to make his impression down to the very brickwork beneath the facades, creating what I like to think of as a kind of artful architectural archaeology (and the alliteration just came, honestly).

This removal of layers takes some doing. Vhils uses a variety of tools to create his artworks. Sometimes a delicate scalpel might be called for – then at other times a pneumatic drill might be what is needed.  Yet the incredibly detailed, often careworn looking faces of the nameless champions of everyday life have appeared in cities all over the globe from London to Shanghai.

His popularity and reputation spread and Vhil’s art now appears in galleries (at the time of writing his work can be seen at London's Lazarides Gallery).  He had his first show in 2008 in Lisbon – the marvellously named Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat. Shows in London, Paris and Shanghai followed.

I am not even sure that I can properly describe Vhils’ work as graffiti.  The Oxford dictionary defines it as writing or drawings scribbled, scratched, or sprayed illicitly on a wall or other surface in a public place.  This may just be semantics, but Vhils’ art is quite often not on the wall – it is the wall (or at the very least part of it).

In a gallery setting his art is taken from its natural ‘habitat’ perhaps. Yet at the very least it means that a portion of his art will be saved for posterity. Like the very buildings he ornaments, Vhils’ art is transient. Sometimes his work lasts for years, sometimes it is only days before it is just another layer on the wall.

It is easy, because of its potentially short-lived nature to dismiss street art and some would argue that taking it off the street strips away its raison d’etre just as Vhils strips away the layers. Yet I find his work elegiac, intricate, and moreover, ambitious in scale and timeless in resolution.

Vhils’ latest show is at the Lazarides Gallery in London at the time of writing.
First Image Credit Flickr User 3mujin