It’s ‘Part Of The Game’: This Artist Isn’t Bothered When His Work Is Demolished

Portuguese artist Alexandre Farto aka Vhils works in his mural depicting healthcare workers’ faces carved on a wall of Sao Joao Hospital in Porto on June 17, 2020. – Vhils unveiled on June 19, 2020 this carving-graffiti artwork at the Sao Joao hospital that pays tribute to the health professionals who were at the frontline fighting the novel coronavirus outbreak. (Photo by PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE – MANDATORY MENTION OF THE ARTIST UPON PUBLICATION – TO ILLUSTRATE THE EVENT AS SPECIFIED IN THE CAPTION (Photo by PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP via Getty Images)

A guy in his 30s, handsome behind his mask (this is pre-pandemic), carries a chisel, drills, jigsaws, sometimes explosives, and walks up to a dilapidated wall. Looks like trouble. What’s going on? Is he on a march toward destruction? Yup. Sorta. About to create graffiti? Nope. Make something beautiful? Yup.

He’s a Portuguese street artist named Alexandre Manuel Dias Farto. His street name is Vhils. (Portugal Confidential says the tag Vhils “has no meaning, except that V-H-I-L and S are his favorite and fastest letters to write with paint.”) He works all over the world — Europe, Asia, in this country Las Vegas, Chicago, Miami, San Diego — and Cincinnati. The Contemporary Arts Center there is giving him a big exhibition. They re-opened July 1, but their extensive and impressive online show is still up, and it gives you a sense of his amazing work.

Although he gave it up, Vhils’ early inspiration was protest graffiti like this:

People gather around the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia on June 20, 2020. – The global civil unrest ignited by Floyd’s death has left many Americans questioning their country’s racist past — with statues of white men who championed slavery in the spotlight, especially in places like Richmond (Photo by Ryan M. Kelly / AFP) (Photo by RYAN M. KELLY/AFP via Getty Images)

Vhils’ work is not overtly political, although he has his issues: globalization, preservation, history.

The way he works is new. He calls it “creative destruction.” With his tools, “he will literally chisel into the wall and uncover what’s under the first layer [paint or stucco or posters],” says Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center director Raphaela Platow. “Sometimes he chisels down to the brick.” See him in action:


So Vhils’ method is destructive, but also productive. A search. “Almost like an archaeological project where the layers of a building are excavated,” Platow says. Peeling away, to reveal what’s underneath … and underneath, and again underneath.

Platow says, “he is taking away, in order for a face to emerge.” The faces belong to people he meets in neighborhoods he prowls, searching for the wall he wants to chisel. “Shopkeepers, janitors, school kids,” Platow says. He shmoozes with residents, asks about their stories, takes their photo.

Once he’s found his building — dilapidated usually, likely to be demolished — he gets permission to tackle the wall, projects a face onto it (re-sizing and manipulating the photo on his computer so it fits properly), and then traces the image onto the wall. Some faces can be six stories high. Nice big canvas. Other faces hide in tunnels.

A man sweeps the floor in front of Vhils’ chiselled portrait entitled “Bernie Made Off”, at the “Hell’s Half Acre” exhibition at the Old Vic Tunnels in south London on October 11, 2010. The Lazarides Gallery has collaborated with the Old Vic Tunnels to convert the unused railway arches into a large-scale evocation of Dante’s Inferno. The exhibition is free to enter and runs until October 17. Photo taken on October 11, 2010. AFP PHOTO/LEON NEAL (Photo credit should read LEON NEAL/AFP via Getty Images)

Vhils is interested in how cities are changing as the world becomes more global. The wear and tear of his buildings show some history. His tools reveal the history, the layers of it. Platow says he’s driven by, “this whole notion of what has to be removed in order to have new things.” His walls are, “ever evolving histories and show the pulse of a place.” They animate a city.

And then, in time, the walls disappear. The faces are gone. The building is demolished. That’s fine with Vhils. “Part of the game,” he told Portugal Confidential. “It only gives you more incentive to produce more work. Nothing lasts forever anyway, not even gallery-based work, and the important thing is what it might give people while it’s there.”

A work by artist Vihls etched in a concrete wall is pictured at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris on May 28, 2014. The Google Cultural Institute is undertaking a project on street art during the exhibition “Lasco Project” at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, which brings together the works of various graffiti and street artists. AFP PHOTO/FRANCOIS GUILLOT RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE, MANDATORY MENTION OF THE ARTIST UPON PUBLICATION, TO ILLUSTRATE THE EVENT AS SPECIFIED IN THE CAPTION (Photo credit should read FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP via Getty Images)

Art Where You’re At is an informal series showcasing lively online offerings from museums while their buildings are closed due to COVID-19. (Or in the case of Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center, slowly re-opening.)