Vhils—Destroy. Create. Repeat.
DRILLS, CHISELS, HAMMERS AND DUST surround Portuguese street artist Alexandre Farto as he drills through a wall at the National University of Arts (UNArte) in Bucharest. Going by the tag name “Vhils,” he carves out a huge portrait of Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuși. This is how he works. This is his art.
Growing up in Seixal, an industrialized suburb of Lisbon in Portugal, Alexandre Farto lived right by the remains of the Carnation Revolution—the popular uprising against Salazar’s dictatorship which ushered Portugal into the era of democracy on 25 April, 1974. The revolutionaries mainly used graffiti to bring down the dictatorship, spraying layer upon layer of paint over the existing political slogans. But two decades later, in the late 1990s, the city council decided to paint over the graffiti.
While working with stencils in 2004, Farto realized that merely adding more layers of graffiti made no sense. He felt that if he dug his way through history and discovered what was hidden behind the paint, he could uncover art that was truly meaningful. That’s when he began blasting walls and carving portraits of revolutionary figures, artists or just abstract symbols. Like an urban archeologist, he scratched through the surface of Portugal’s walls in search of buried secrets, finding remnants of the revolution and traces of poverty and social inequality behind the façades of urban development projects. Time forgives, but history does not forget.
Farto’s art of making the invisible visible gradually spread from his hometown in Portugal, to Singapore, Los Angeles and Rio de Janeiro. In 2013 he created Incision, an ode to Brazil’s forgotten community, the “Guarani.” It is a series of portraits, sprayed onto forgotten doors and walls in one of the poorest neighbourhoods of Rio de Janeiro.
Farto’s art has managed to connect like-minded people from all over the world to each other. His mural of the Brazilian human rights activist Marielle Franco (1979-2018) was included in Amnesty International’s “Brave Walls initiative” in Lisbon in 2018.
I first met Farto in Bucharest while he was carving the portrait of Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuși at the National University of Arts. Clad in his work clothes, he extended a hand covered in white dust and simply introduced himself as Alexandre. His humility seemed to match that of the Romanian sculptor, who changed the history of art through his methods rather than his bravado.
Looking at Alexandre’s work from close quarters, you see chaos and destruction. But when you step back, his work emerges as a piece of history and life itself—a layer of time. His work urges us to go beyond what we see. To look for truth behind the façade. A wall matters to those who live nearby it, or those who are just passing by. A wall changes things in an increasingly globalized world. But chiseling away the layers of brick reveals the souls of the people who have lived in its vicinity.
Borrowing from the economist Joseph Schumpeter, Alexandre says, “The product of creation is often the destruction of something that existed before.”
This article appears in Are We Europe #4: This Is Not An Elections Issue