Vhils - Cover - Mike Neal

Scratching the surface


When I heard that renowned artist Vhils—born Alexandre Farto [Lisbon, 1987]–was scheduled to chisel a mural into a Toronto wall, I immediately went into fanboy mode. I’ve admired his work for a very long time—this was not only an opportunity to see one of his murals up close, but also to possibly speak with the man himself, although I had heard he didn’t like interviews and was not easily accessible.    I was told his crew would be working on the mural from Thursday to Saturday—the artist was arriving in Toronto on Sunday and would be on-site Monday and Tuesday to finish the piece. So, I did what any fanboy would do… on Thursday night I bought a coffee, drove to 1628 Dundas Street West, and got a front row seat to watch the process. Stop and repeat until the mural was done.     Many words come to mind when the name Vhils is mentioned—humanist, genuine, unique, poetic, passionate, complex, layered even destructive. Renowned for his bas-relief portraits which often portray ordinary, elder people—the possessors of wisdom— Vhils creates his murals by subtracting rather than adding more paint to walls. Like a modern-day archeologist, he uses hammers, electric chisels and explosives to chip through layers of plaster, paint and dirt, exposing the history beneath to create something new and relevant to the community, and the results are breathtaking.     When I showed up on Monday afternoon (day five), the artist had arrived and had been working all day—most of the mural was complete. I watched Vhils chip at the wall, back away from the piece to see what needed to be tweaked and return to the wall to make his adjustments. I decided to use our common connection to break the ice and during a break, I made my approach.    I had found two connections. The first was shop talk—we had both worked on projects with U2 in 2014. I helped design their Innocence + Experience VIP tour book—shout-out to James Bailey who taught me (mostly) everything that I know about design; VHILS created an “explosive” art film for “Raised by Wolves” as part of the Films of Innocence project.    The second was cultural—my first introduction to street art also occurred in Portugal, and more specifically, from the walls of post-Salazar Portugal. In 1978, almost a decade before Alexandre was born, I touched down in Lisbon, chaperoned by my grandmother, my uncle Tony and his young family. The taxi driver piled three more adults, three children and our luggage into his cab—one of the iconic black and mint green Mercedes—and drove the 500 or so kilometres north through the winding roads of the N109, only stopping for fuel and to let my cousin Jacquie and I take turns throwing up—probably caused by the movement of the car and the bizarre smell of diesel which our North American noses weren’t used to.     After seven hours of driving, we arrived in Arcos de Valdevez, the tiny town in Minho which is home to my mother’s family. It was still dark—maybe four in the morning. Our driver pulled over, refusing to take the final 11-kilometre trek up the mountain to my grandmother’s house, claiming the poor quality of the roads would damage his cab—he wasn’t wrong. The only shop that had its lights on was a bakery, and the owner, who seemed to know my grandmother, greeted us with a smile and allowed us to store our luggage on the flour covered floor for a couple of hours while we waited for the town to wake up, at which point we could pick up some groceries and hire another cab to take us the rest of the way.     As my grandmother chatted with the bakery owner, I stood outside, in the dark, looking around and watching the sun to rise. As dusk turned to dawn, the old retaining wall in front of me was illuminated and I could see that this massive wall had been used as a canvas—the communist logo (hammer and sickle); 25 de abril (the date of the country’s peaceful Carnation Revolution which marked the end of the dictatorship); and various leftist political slogans were painted in red and black all over the concrete wall.     Nine-year-old me stood there for what seemed like hours, staring at the wall and watching people walk by. It was unlike anything that I had seen growing up in the suburbs of Toronto, so I asked my grandmother what this was all about. With a hint of disgust in her voice, she simply answered, “os comunistas.” They were responsible for this and, in her defence, she never went to school and didn’t follow politics. Her political opinions were probably a regurgitation of the opinions she soaked in from her handful of neighbours. I was too young to understand or care, for that matter—I saw art. Looking back, I assume that was the spark which led me to doodle slogans and band logos all over every binder I ever owned.     Over the years there was a cleanup of Portugal and these walls that had been littered with leftist slogans now stood across the street from large corporate billboards and were considered unappealing to the eyes of the tourists and emigrants who would come back every summer to spend their francs and dollars. This sparked a country-wide cleanup and as Portugal settled into its life as a democracy, the walls were painted white. As time passed, those walls ended up with multiple layers of thick paint hiding the past.    When young Vhils started his “career” as a street artist, he was just another angsty teen running around Lisbon with his crew, tagging walls. He discovered what was under the peeling layers of white paint—posters, more paint, slogans, concrete, brick. He was an archeologist chipping away at the walls and peeling back layers of time to expose the history that had been sealed behind the thick paint. The walls I had seen on my trip—the walls that spoke to the revolution, and the break from oppression.    It was with these two commonalities that I broke the ice and started my conversation with Vhils, and it turns out he’s extremely accessible. In fact, after speaking with him, I added a few more words to my list—soft spoken, humble, attentive, compassionate. 

“Sra. Idalina Azevedo – Part of my ongoing Scratching the Surface project, this new mural celebrates and honours the Portuguese immigrant women who toiled as janitorial workers in the high-rise office towers in downtown Toronto in the 1970’s. Portuguese “cleaning ladies” have been a constant presence in the lives of countless Portuguese-Canadians as mothers, wives, breadwinners, community members, and activists, and are an example of strength, resilience, perseverance and courage for us all.“

Luso Life: In 1974, Portugal had The Carnation Revolution. Here in Toronto, the Portuguese had a different protest—the Cleaners’ Action, which is the subject of your mural. Do you see any similarities or a correlation between the two? 

Alexandre Farto [Vhils]: I think so. Some of the intentions and the story behind the activism that was brought at the time was really related to the movement that was going through Portugal. So, there are some correlations, but I think it was a very specific local struggle for the conditions that people were living through at the time. I was really touched by the way people were engaging to fight for the rights for no better work conditions. As part of one of the first waves of immigration, this kind of march was a way for people to participate in Canadian society as well. So it was a way for them to reclaim the fact that they exist, and that they needed to have fair conditions of work, and that really touched me. I think it’s very important to pay homage not just for the act, but also for the people that are still alive, which we were able to portray, like Idalina who we depicted in the portrait. In that sense, the idea of the mural is to portray the story, not that it’s invisible, because people know the story, but to make it visible for people to discuss it, to talk about it and to feel proud about it. So, in that sense, it’s connected with a body of work that I do, that tries to bring stories, almost like an archaeologist, back from the walls to where they belong. So, the act of carving a wall is a bit of an archeological process as well. A wall is there, and you have the surface of the wall, but when you carve into it, those layers were there before my existence, you know. So in a way you’re kind of an archaeologist of the city and of the communities where you work, you know, that’s, that’s an intention.

Right. This is like what I was saying to you yesterday, my first introduction to street art was in Portugal and all the leftist political symbols that were all painted on the walls. By the time you were born, they were painted over, then you started peeling away at them, right?

Yeah, that’s a very interesting story, I was born, was late 80s, and some were still there into the 90s—not all but some of them—but they were fading away from the sun. So, it was like, we had these utopian activist murals from a generation before, but they were forgotten in a way, because the country went from extreme right to extreme left, and then in the late 80s, we got into the EU. There was a big boom, with the economy being liberalized, and things evolved in a direction where you started to have a lot of advertising on the street. So, on one side, you had a forgotten mural from the 70s that was claiming a utopian society, and on the opposite side of the street, you would have a huge billboard selling, you know, consumer goods. So, you could see this confrontation between two systems in the streets while I was growing up. Then graffiti started showing up, and it went on top of the advertising and on top of those walls, and then the City Council started to paint everything white. It was like the walls were testimony of the changes of time, and it was like the city was getting fatter, with different perspectives on the city and on society. So, when I was 15 or 16, and I was exploring, I was part of this, and I was doing graffiti on those walls, but I started to think, everyone is adding to the walls in the city. You can see everyone is overlaying things on top and I came up with the idea—why am I adding and participating in this adding of adding? Why not go to a wall and instead of adding, I remove, and I paint with the layers of time that were there, in the search of who we are in the middle of all of these changes, you know? 

So that’s how the work kind of started, in this quest of looking for what really defines us, what are we beyond all of these things that are put in public spaces to dictate our needs and what we should want. It was in this quest that I ended up with this concept of being kind of an urban archaeologist, that goes out to expose those layers that we forgot. 

Something I was thinking about as well is how it’s funny that I went on to use explosives in my body of work, In 2008/2009, we had a big debt crisis in Portugal, and I realized that the impact of crisis, it’s almost like a spark that ignites and innocently, and the things that we were talking about back in the 70s, and 80s like protectionism and countries isolating themselves from Europe, come back when we get too close to crisis. So, in a way, some the symbology of using explosives, is kind of how a crisis can ignite an explosion, and suddenly you have a wall that is exposed that was there in the 50s, when we were talking about nationalism, and all of these questions that arise and that are quite contemporary today. It’s what I try to reflect on—how history tends to repeat itself and we tend to make the same mistakes. 

Back to this mural, I’ve already heard that some community leaders were grumbling about the subject matter. They see it as stereotyping Portuguese women as cleaners—I think they’re missing the point. What are your thoughts? you want to comment on that.

Yeah. when you work in a public space, you’re always exposed to people having their own opinions, and that’s part of it. The intention is to create a stereotype, it’s actually the opposite. It is to pay homage to people that played a significant role in society and they should be admired for that. It doesn’t mean that we are a stereotype. We are free to be what we are. The new generations will come but we should never forget the struggle that people went through. I think it’s validated, showing it as a place of strength is much more powerful than trying to hide all those struggles and all those tough times that have allowed us to be here now.

When I was here on Friday, an older gentleman stopped to admire your work and chat with me. He said the mural should’ve been made somewhere else so it could be protected from the kids who will just paint over it. He suggested High Park, which is a nice spot but has nothing to do with Portuguese people or the Cleaners’ Action. What do you think? 

I understand but I think the fabric of little Portugal and the story that this place has makes it more connected with the story we are talking about. So in that sense, I think it’s the right place in this case, but it doesn’t mean that one day we cannot do a project about something else somewhere else.

Urban art isn’t always fondly accepted. Because your subjects are mainly ordinary people from the neighbourhood, do you find the feedback to your murals positive?

Sometimes yes. Sometimes the subjects are controversial as well but that’s part of working in public space. Someone once told me that it’s great because you do your art in a public space, but you also make your mistakes in public space. So you’re exposed to all of that but it’s part of the nature of working in a public space. Then, of course, people can paint over it. The wall evolves through time which is also part of working in a public space.

Have you ever hidden in the background quietly and just listened to people comment on your work?

Not many times, but sometimes, yeah! [laughs]

Unlike traditional artists, street artists are sometimes looked at as criminals who have no regard for other people’s property. Thanks to people like yourself, Banksy and the higher profile artists, the genre is starting to get respect. Here in Toronto, we have an area called Graffiti Alley where artists are encouraged to be creative and paint walls, garage doors, etc. What are your thoughts on cities having specific spaces for graffiti?

I think, the illegal appropriation of the public space is always going to happen, It happens legally as well, with advertising and other expressions but that’s part of living in a city. Living in a city is a synonym of graffiti and graffiti is a synonym of a city. So it’s always something that is intertwined– the nature of the city as an organism and human nature. I think you can go against it. You can forbid it and you can arrest people, but I don’t think you’re gonna gain anything by doing that. I think a lot of the cities are starting to understand that creating a connection with their artistic scene, be it graffiti artists or any artist that wants to work in a public space, brings an edge to those cities that other cities don’t get. Toronto has quite an interesting policy; Philadelphia has a program that works closely with artists; Lisbon, as well is a great example of authority starting to create a connection with artists—a union that brings reverence to the neighbourhoods and brings people that just come to walk and enjoy the different murals. I would prefer to live in a city that has evolution and that has art in a public space that rather than not having it. It’s a bit suspect for me to say this, but I think a lot of the cities are seeing urban art as a medium of promoting themselves and to bring attention to neighbourhoods that sometimes are forgotten.

Recently, we’ve seen many luxury brands working with street artists to create edgy campaigns. What are your feelings towards collabs with the corporate world?

It’s complex but I know that every artist has to pay their bills and work through their life. For a long time, it was a place of struggle, and this acceptance that is happening now, was not there 5 to10 years ago. These artists are entitled to manage their career the way they want, and that’s fair, in a sense, but at the same time, I hope that artists are conscious of that, and that some of the money they earn from those projects can be applied to community projects or to projects that help other artists.

Right, because you run a program in Lisbon, don’t you?

Yeah, we’re a team. We have a gallery in Lisbon where we support local artists and we also bring artists from abroad to work in Lisbon. They come, do a show, and they also do wall in the city. I funded a festival as well, with other partners, not just showcasing art but also music. So it’s kind of creating a space where people can show their art and live from what they do and display their emotion. I will always try to do projects that, in a way, give space to new art forms in the city—it’s my way of trying to give back a bit.

Vhils, I’m assuming was your tag name? 

Yep. [laughs]

I’m assuming you ran with a crew? 


Do you still work with any of them?

Some of them are part of my group? I’ve known them for a long, long time. Others I will still paint with sometimes from time to time, I still paint but, you know, the work evolves, the career evolves but I still keep in touch quite a lot. I mean, we, we the friends—crew that I started with.

Are there any paintings by 15-year-old Vhils still on display in Lisbon?

[laughs] In the suburbs, maybe a few? Not many, It was long time ago.

Has anyone tried to protect your walls from destruction?

Yeah, it happens sometimes. It even happened that one wall was removed from one place to another. It’s part of it, I mean, I accept the ephemeral side of working in the public space.

Does it bother you when your art is destroyed?

No. When you work in a public space, you need to be ready to be part of an organism that evolves and changes. People paint over things and buildings get demolished. Sometimes it’s tough, because they are walls that you have an engagement with—you have a story to tell—but I think the wall that evolves through your lifetime, and if it decays or evolves or someone paints over it or whatever, it’s more human, because it changes as we change. I’m not doing a bronze sculpture, you know. When you work on walls in a public space, you need to be ready as well for the work to evolve, because it’s not yours anymore—it belongs to the city. So in the end, I am not really for protecting walls, I would say, but I understand why they want to do it. I think it’s important to let the city evolve, you know.

Creativity can be attributed to nurture and the environment we are brought up in but it is also inherited… are your parents creative people or are you more a product of the streets?

My father is an accountant and my mom is a professor, so no, nothing connected with this. [laughs] with this. Graffiti, for sure had a big influence on my upbringing, though I was  self-conscious about working in public space. I was also involved with a lot of associations at the beginning, and still I am trying to help in the neighbourhoods around where I was living. It was not planned. I guess, I was lucky to have met the people that I found. 

Did they encourage your art?

It was complicated at first, but now they support. It was not easy. They were worried, I guess. Being an artist is probably not the best profession.

Do you have any formal art education?

I do. I don’t know how schools work in Canada, but in secondary school I was in the arts division of the public school and there I had two professors that were really understanding and believed in me. They really pushed me to continue and to reflect on things. 

When I left school I tried to get into Belas-Artes which is like the main Art School in Lisbon, but I didn’t have the grades to get in… which actually was good because then I went to study in London. I was on a tight budget but I was lucky enough to work closely with the Banksy team and I was invited to be part of the Cans Festival [2008]. I already had some attention in Portugal, but it was Cans that brought me international attention, and then projects started to come—it was an important step.

Graffiti artists work anonymously, how have you adapted to becoming a public figure who’s now commissioned to “destroy” people’s walls?

It was an evolution, not taught. I still do projects at a lot of places like factories that are abandoned, but having the privilege to be invited to cities, where you work closely with communities, with associations, and you can make an impact in the city, it’s great. Also being able to bring the team and having good conditions to work is great. The energy is the same because I still do quite a lot. The fact is we can do these kind of projects, where everything, is very well organized but we also have space to do other things that are less organized and more complicated. I try to have a balance between the two.

After they become famous, artists are sometimes accused of not being authentic. How is it that you’ve managed to stay true to your art and maintain the same level of street cred?

I don’t know. [laughs] I mean maybe some people think other things—that I am not authentic or whatever, but I guess everyone is entitled to their opinion. What I try to do is never forget where I came from. As well, I remember the struggle of being an artist and how tough it is. In the process of creation and growth through my work, I always try to keep my feet on the ground and try to do grassroots projects where I can support other artists and give back to the artistic community that’s given me a lot as well.

I know you’ve worked with musicians like U2 and Orelha Negra. Do you enjoy collabs? Are there any artists/musicians you’d like to work with?

I’ve managed to work with some great people. Colabs are very interesting, because it puts you out of your comfort zone. So you are exposed to do something that you are not expected to do, and that’s where growth comes from—specifically for me, possibly not for everyone. So, artists to work with? Let’s see… I have a few things going on.

What are you listening to right now?

Every type of music. I don’t really discriminate between music types. I helped create the Festival Iminente. Its kind of a chill vibe—it’s a lot of the things that I listen to. So if you visit the website, there’s a lineup you can look through,. 

You work in negative space and extraction—almost like carving a jack-o-lantern. Was it difficult to train yourself to see the wall in that way? Because you’re seeing it as a negative, aren’t you?

In a way yes, but more than just seeing the negative space is accepting the chaos of layers being built by nature in the city—you never know what you’re going to find behind the wall. I’ve found old murals, I found a ring once. 

So what I have is a kind of image in my head of what I want to do next but then the wall dictates the final results, because I never know what’s there—Is it going to be grey? is it going to be dark grey? Is it going to be plaster? Is it going to be brick? It’s all a discovery that I go through. Part of the process of creation, which then dictates the final result.

There’s a luthier in North Carolina (US) named Freemon Vines who makes very unique guitars, some carved from trees where black men were lynched and hanged. Freeman says the guitars are unique because the wood speaks and guides him. Do you have similar feelings working on walls that are also hundreds of years old and full of history?

Yeah, it’s accepting the nature of the materials and the chaos of the history. I never know how it was gonna end—It’s a dance. You never know if a wall is going to break. If it’s going to be fragile on that side and then a big part comes off; or it’s going to be stronger on the other, so it’s more difficult, and then your strength is not enough to break it. It’s always a dialogue between your strengths, the wall’s strengths, the wall’s history, the layers and the place. I’ve made murals in a lot of cities and the material in each city is different for a reason. There’s a story behind it.





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