since the early 2000’s, portuguese artist alexandre farto AKA vhils has worked on a number of graffiti and street art projects in various locations all around the world. using a palette of bricks, white paint, and torn billboards, farto carves and extracts different sections in order to highlight the rich history behind the surface of each site-specific piece. his work which includes chiseled facades, installations, and printed material aims to subvert and reveal different layers both aesthetically and conceptually in order to convey underlying themes and messages that are often overlooked. 

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designboom visited vhils‘ studio in lisbon where he spoke with us about his current projects, influences, and how he first started as a graffiti artist. from screen printing rooms, ripped billboards and the artist’s collection of posters, we were guided through each workspace where we gained insight into farto’s creative process.


designboom (DB): how did you first start working as a graffiti artist?


alexandre farto (AF): I started as an illegal graffiti maker when I was thirteen, which was in a way my background, however when I reached sixteen or seventeen I started to question what I was doing. people would see you as a vandal that was destroying public or private property, I always found that concept interesting, how the act of creation could be seen as beautiful by me and my peers but the general view of society saw it as defacing or taking value from something, so I came up with a plan to subvert the idea of destroying. I noticed that there were lots of layers within the city of lisbon, from murals of the revolution that we had in the 70’s to billboards selling consumer goods on the other side of the street, so it was almost like two different systems were confronting themselves in the same place. the billboards took over the murals and the graffiti guys went on top of these, then the space got faster and faster and it was almost like the city was getting fatter with each layer. I decided then to paint all of these billboards white and then carve on them and expose all of these layers that were reflecting the times that we were living. I felt that by destroying I was revealing.

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DB: what subject were you focusing on when working on these billboards?


AF: I was creating mostly portraits which were an impact of the city and our identity and how people were affected by all these building up of layers. the advertisements were creating expectations of a dream life, holiday, or consumer goods so it was creating a bridge between who we were and what were we made of by being in this context. by studying this reflection you don’t just add, you were destroying, you were abstracting, you were revealing. I wasn’t using a palette of colors, it was just black and white and the black would be cut out and whatever layers that were found would just compose the image. so the palette of colors that I was using to do this portrait work were like pieces of history, almost like an archeological process of revealing these layers to create these portraits. this is how it started, the act of destroying the surface to reveal what is underneath. also by making something invisible visible, by trying to go and dig for something more deeper than the surface, that’s how we started the whole process with billboards and then with walls, doors, woods, concrete and then metal.


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DB: what projects are you currently working on?


AF: we just worked with a neighborhood where people had been dismissed from their homes and had nowhere to live. their houses had been demolished and they were just put on the street. I went there with the studio and did almost 23 portraits of the people that were there and enlarged them onto the walls where the demolition was taking place. it was not just the walls and bricks that were being destroyed, it was people’s lives as well. in this process as an artist, you realize that you can put a spotlight on things that were not usually in discussion in the media and so on, this in a way is almost an act of activism to help a situation in a city.

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DB: what do you aim to achieve through your work?


AF: it is about being conscious about the work that you create. for me is very interesting to kind of subvert ideas and to try to use different mediums to communicate situations that are not so fair. it’s not about taking a side, if a situation is happening, an artist should create a dialogue. if someone is not being listened to or maybe no one is talking about it and people are being treated unjustly, art can actually put a spotlight on the situation and raise questions and I think that’s the goal that I’m trying to achieve.

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DB: how has your work evolved over the years?


AF: a lot has happened in the last ten years, I am thirty years old, fifteen years ago I started very early doing graffiti, but I think the work has evolved as you evolve as a person. I think I had an objective which was to do what I wanted to do independently and keep the balance between projects that are commissioned and paid and the projects that I really want to do as an objective.

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DB: how would you describe your process?


AF: it is a lot about destroying the surface and all of the layers that are already there, using them as palettes of color for my portraits. it is a very dense process between me and myself, it’s kind of a chaotic process that makes me excited about the creation as you never know what you will end up with, that makes it very beautiful as it makes the process organic.

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DB: who/what has been the biggest influence on you work?


AK: cities in general, also I think a lot of artists that work in the public space were important for my career like gordon matta-clark, who used the public space to makes statements, then there is banksy, JR, shepard fairey, all these artists that work in the public space as a way of reflection.

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DB: what advice would you give to graffiti artists?


AK: we live in a different time than before, there used to be a lot of artists that were creating in a time that was more difficult to have their work recognized. the internet has changed how things are circulated but I think that there are a lot more possibilities not just to evolve but also to reach different people, so to master that combined with having a message is a very powerful thing.

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DB: do you have a personal motto that you live by?


AK: action is an enemy of thinking, thinking is an enemy of action. so when you think too much you don’t act enough it’s worthless. when you act too much and you think less it’s worthless, so it’s the balance between thinking and action that’s important. that’s my motto, always keep the balance between the acting and thinking. 


read our interview with alexandre farto from 2014 here.

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alexandre farto showed us his collection of posters from countries such as cuba and mexico
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concrete section from the GS1 portugal HQ in lisbon
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a section which has been taken from a lisbon metro carriage stands at the entrance to the studio
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alexandre farto AKA vhils
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alexandre farto AKA vhils studio visit and interview in lisbon

find vhils’ wechat here