Portuguese street artist Vhils speaks to Helen Herimbi about graffiti, globalisation and giving nature credit

I can’t take my eyes off his nails.
Short with dissimilar black arches.
Vhils is a man who works with his hands. For a few days, at Hennessy’s invite, the Portuguese street artist who creates art by carving a portrait out of a section of a building, has been working on something special.
The debris causing the black arches on his nails is the result of tireless work on a mural of Yvonne Chaka Chaka. It was commissioned by the adult beverage makers after they partnered to have Vhils design a bottle.
Vhils, whose real name is Alexandre Manuel Dias Farto, says he knew of the Princess of Africa’s music before he had the opportunity to create an image of her resolutely looking down on Maboneng.
“I knew some of her music before but I did not know the extent and depth of her work in other fields until later,” he tells me. “We met and we had lunch and discussed a little bit about each other’s lives and how much I admire her work and everything she had been doing.”
“I had several images and we had a photo session. I get the images, sketch over them and there was one image that I was most inspired by.”
Vhils rose to popularity after one of his signature portraits appeared near Banksy’s work at the Cans Festival in London 10 years ago. His style is immortalising the ordinary person through portraiture. Vhils has a famous piece of an orangutan but his style involves mostly human faces and never objects. He uses walls as his canvas and various tools and machinery to carve out parts of the wall that reveal his subject – hence the black parts of his nails.
He explains that faces are important to him because they convey “the idea of identity.”
“With globalisation and everything we’ve been through in the world, I think identity has been a really big challenge. People are struggling to cope with how we are increasingly becoming more globalised. A sense of belonging to a place is something the human being will have to deal with very shortly. The world is much more connected now and we are becoming more similar, which makes the world easier to connect.”
“But at the same time, maybe we are losing what was making us special in each part of the world. What I’m trying to do is not criticise but make a picture of the impact this is having on all of us, in different cities. Beyond that, the fact that you carve a portrait of a person from that city means you’re humanising the space and that interaction with the people is very interesting to me.”
Like most street artists, Vhils had started out tagging walls. But then he got the itch to do something else.
“I started with graffiti when I was 13,” he remembers. “I was just a kid rebel, getting together with friends and drawing. It was very important to me, growing up, to feel like I was a part of something. I was really trying to push and didn’t want to settle for just painting.”
“I ended up with this idea. Everyone was painting or putting up posters and one day, I just went to the wall and extracted and painted with what was inside. I started to see walls more as something that absorbs the history of the place, rather than just something you put stuff on top of.”
“Sometimes the walls I’d use would just be white or painted on and I’d work on them and discover someone’s tag in there or a poster in there. I find that interesting. It’s almost like I am an archaeologist of the walls in different cities.”
The 31-year-old says it feels like the art is already in the wall and his job is just to reveal it.
He says: “It always comes to me because I never know what I’m going to find inside. You start to carve the wall and discover colours, textures and layers. It’s like a dance between me and the wall. I sometimes have an idea in my hand but then sometimes the wall breaks up and then I need to include the piece that fell off into the image. Or I discover a colour that’s so good that I stop and I don’t carve any more.”
“I don’t use ink or paint so my colour palette is the layers that are already inside the wall. I really accept what the wall is and that makes the art really special and really local as well because you’re unveiling the history of the place. It’s very organic, this process.”
Vhils’s talent is the ability to take away from a space in order to create something new. It’s almost like destroying to build. During one of his exhibitions in Macau, the region was hit by a typhoon. I ask him if it felt like a meta statement where the cycle of taking away to create also swooped in on his work.
“Not really,” he says pensively. “It was just the work interacting with nature. I am interacting with nature when I am carving the wall and the work didn’t really get destroyed. The water went up to the work so some of it has these lines now because of where the water got faded. That made it very beautiful as well. They are made special by what happened.”