Vhils chisels away the city’s surface to humanise urban environments
There is something simultaneously unsettling and soothing about the large-scale portraits carved by Vhils in walls across the world. Watching over the streets in cities like Hong Kong, Rio de Janeiro and Sydney, the faces depicted in his murals appear to see right through you. They feel almost familiar, even if they are perfect strangers – anonymous citizens who crossed Vhils's path while he researches a project. Brought to life through his trademark bas-relief technique, the grayscale compositions project a silent and delicate nature, while their cement, plaster and brick skeleton feels somehow brutal.
With a chisel and a creative mind, Vhils has carved out a reputation for himself as a heavyweight in the global street art scene. Yet the “street artist” label seems a little limiting to describe him. Vhils's work can be found both in public spaces and indoors, from site-specific interventions to gallery exhibitions, including collaborations with partners as diverse as U2 and the Centre Pompidou. With a confessed love-hate relationship with cities, his work remains undeniably tied to them, regardless of the context. Alexandre subtracts to add and destroys to create; the urban chaos is both a subject and driving force behind his work.
The complexities of urban societies hit Vhils while he was growing up in the Lisbon suburbs, on the south bank of the Tagus. “My first idea of Lisbon was that it was this all-devouring city that was responsible for the urbanisation process taking over my hometown and the countryside”, he says. The city endeared itself to him when he got involved in the local graffiti scene and explored its alleyways to paint. With its faded glamour, the old city proved a significant influence on his visual language. “My observations of Lisbon’s streets led me to understand how urban walls seem to be steeped in history. It’s as if the passage of time has added new layers and trapped some remains of the past beneath, and each of these layers speaks of a different time”.