Lisbon’s streets are a gallery in their own right. Graffiti has repurposed the city’s crumbling façades and storied barrios into a display of highly saturated colour and social commentary. Alexandre Farto AKA Vhils is the Lisbon-based street artist behind some of the most spectacular. His signature bas-relief style has achieved global recognition, having been carved into the decaying stucco of buildings from Rio de Janeiro to London and Los Angeles. If there is an expert on Lisbon street art, it’s Vhils. Here, he shares his favourite city sights, as well as the coolest coffee haunts and clubs.
Were there any walls or works that inspired you to become a street artist?
I first began interacting with the city as a graffiti writer, so many of my early influences were from other graffiti writers and street artists I admired, but there are too many to list them all. I was also heavily influenced by the poetic decay and the crumbling walls of Lisbon itself. This decay made me aware of how the layers that form these walls reflect the passage of time, exposing bits and pieces of the past to the passer-by. As I transitioned from graffiti to other types of visual work, I realised I didn't want to simply add yet another layer to these walls and became interested in removing some of them instead, exposing fragments of the past. Most of the work I do today still derives from this.
How influential was your experience at Byam Shaw School of Art in developing your style?
By the time I enrolled in university in London, I was already working with the bas-relief carving technique, so there was no influence there. It came from observing the decayed layers of Lisbon's walls and what they seemed to reveal, based on the idea of removing some of them, using an inverted stencil technique, in order to create a contrast that brings the image to life.
You’ve taken your work to streets around the world – which has been your favourite city so far?
I like all of them in their particular way but, in a certain sense, Lisbon remains my favourite. It helped shape who I am and what I'm doing today. It was due to its walls steeped in history that I developed my Scratching the Surface project and the bas-relief carving technique, which I now use on walls all over the world. And it's still home, which is also very important.
You use a lot of faces in your work… who are they?
The majority are people I have met in the course of my travels and projects abroad, anonymous citizens I interact with. Most of the final depictions are of people who have a particular connection with the place I'm working in, but not all. Sometimes I portray people from other places, creating a type of displacement tied in with a reflection on the process of globalisation. Other times I create composites based on several portraits, generating a new portrait that can represent all of us and the way we interact with our cities in this globalised era.
How has Lisbon's street art evolved?
It has evolved a lot. One of the main differences is how it developed from an illegal, low-key movement to be embraced by the city as a new form of public art. This is something quite unique in the case of Lisbon, this investment in these artists who are now actively contributing towards embellishing the city within an institutional setting. At the same time, it's still important for the street art scene to live on in its own right, for new artists to use the streets to voice their interests and concerns outside an institutional setting. It is also interesting to see how more and more people are dropping the ‘street art’ concept and thinking about this purely as ‘art’.
Talk us through your ideal day off in Lisbon?
Instead of spending an ideal day in the city itself, I would rather drive across the bridge and head over to Serra da Arrábida, where you can hit its pristine beaches or walk the many trails around the natural park, take in the breath-taking panoramic views over the Atlantic, the city of Setúbal and the Tróia peninsula across the Sado estuary. It has some incredible spots. A mere short drive from Lisbon, it’s one of Portugal's best kept secrets... a veritable paradise.
What's your favourite Lisbon hangout?
I like Tartine, a coffee shop in Chiado. One of my favourite places to relax in Lisbon at the end of the day is Park, whose terrace has one of the best views of the city, great music and interesting people. Nearby, in Bairro Alto, Bar 36 is the coolest place to socialise with the hip-hop crowd, and ZDB, a gallery, bookstore and bar has some of the most interesting live music acts. To top it all, there's Lux, the best club in Lisbon, a place where we can all be who we are.
Best spot to admire street art?
The best way to discover Lisbon’s street art is to simply wander around its streets. Some spots have greater concentrations of urban art, like the area around Calçada da Glória, the graffiti hall of fame at Amoreiras, Bairro Padre Cruz, or the area around Braço de Prata and Marvila. You can find out the locations of all public art walls and pieces curated by Underdogs (the cultural platform and gallery I co-direct). This is a good starting point.