How Street Artist Vhils Creates a Mural

The renowned Portuguese artist shares a first draft

The son of a dissident in Portugal’s Carnation Revolution, the Lisbon-born street artist Alexandre Farto, a.k.a. Vhils, first rose to prominence when one of his portraits appeared next to a work by Banksy at the 2008 Cans Festival in London. Now, at 24, he’s the youngest artist represented by Banksy’s agent, Steve Lazarides, whose gallery website says Vhils is “taking Vandalism as art to its logico ad absurdum conclusion.” Though he works on wood, metal, walls, and billboards, and with a variety of media—most recently a mixture of ink and bleach—his subject is almost always the same: the faces of anonymous city residents. Exhibited at shows like “Grifters” (London, 2009) and “Shadows and Reflections” (Paris, 2011), these depictions of steely-gazed urbanites occupy billboards and walls once reserved for a a certain kind of "1 percent": celebrities, models, and politicians.

Here, Vhils shares a sketch for a portrait, and describes the “Scratching the Surface” method he uses to translate his works from paper to walls, and to create art through destruction.

Thumbnail image for hoyt Vhils 2000.jpg
THE IDEA OF CARVING WALLS evolved when I was growing up in Lisbon. After the revolution in '74—a coup that took down the right-wing dictatorship—there was this big movement of people doing murals, mostly political ones. But by the beginning of the ‘80s, the murals started crumbling and fading away, forgotten somehow. Then there was a big construction boom. Billboards went up over the murals, and then came the graffiti. In the space of 20 years, the city grew fat with these layers.

As a kid, I remember seeing how these murals would peel. I started thinking about how my work could use the layers of the past to reflect the city, to show people living in it and how their identity was lost, or forgotten. I started to paint these walls of billboards white, then carve away the negative spaces. It’s not illegal, because that sort of advertising was illegal already. Carving these walls, peeling away these layers, it’s like contemporary archeology.

My studio is outside. When I travel I gather a lot of elements in my sketchbook, and in the studio I compose them on the computer. It’s like creating an album. This one is a local guy from Lisbon named Paulo. The idea is to empower common people, give them their space in the city. What’s your definition of an icon? Why should someone be on a big façade? Why not regular people who fight every day for their walls? The project humanizes the city, gives it a face.

I divide images into three colors to create a 3-D perspective. With black you can go deeper, with medium grey not so deep. I pick up a white or black crayon and mark the negative spaces of the portrait. And from there I’m scratching the dirty wall. I use regular paint, then spray paint, then a brush. But the biggest work is done by carving rather than painting. The idea of destroying to create, that’s my style.

When I work I become one of those layers I’m talking about. My work is actually small in terms of all those layers. The possibility that someone might cover my art—it’s just part of the process. Artwork is ephemeral. It’s already expecting to decay, to change with time. I don’t have any problem with that. While I’m alive, I’ll try to do more.

–Vhils, as told to Alex Hoyt

Read past First Drafts from Wilco, Will Shortz, Stephen King, Christo, and others.