To most city-dwellers they are an everyday eyesore, but to Vhils, peeling billboards and crumbling walls are things of beauty.
The Portuguese artist, born Alexandre Farto, has been using urban decay as his canvas for as long as he can remember – chipping away at plaster and bricks and slicing into advertising hoardings to create his eerie giant portraits.
Now 25, he started as a graffiti artist, “bombing” trains in his native Lisbon when he was just 13. He adopted “Vhils” as his tag because they were his favourite letters to spray but by the age of 17, he was already tired of the scene. “I started to look at walls in a different way”, he says. He found that they told the story of his country.
After the Carnation Revolution in 1974, which brought down the right-wing dictatorship which had ruled the country for 48 years, the Portuguese people celebrated their freedom with bold political murals. By the 1980s, when Vhils was growing up, they were fading or had already been pasted over with adverts. “In the same street you would have billboards selling consumer goods and utopian socialist murals. Advertising was pasted on top of the murals and graffiti on top of that”, he explains. “The walls were getting fatter over time.”
“I didn’t want to be just one more layer. So I thought of how I could use all of the layers to reflect the changing times. I started to carve into them. You can find billboards from five, 10 years ago, if you go deep enough.”
Using scalpels, hammers and pneumatic drills, Vhils now retools billboards from Berlin to Shanghai, Moscow to Rio, replacing the usual politicians, models and celebrities with the faces of “everyday heroes” that he sketches on the subway or glimpses at flea markets.
Having studied art at St Martins, one his earliest works for London featured alongside a Banksy in the graffiti artist’s Cans Festival underneath Waterloo Station in 2008. Two years later, he made headlines when he carved a likeness of the American con-man Bernie Madoff into the peeling plaster of the same tunnels for Steve Lazarides’ Hell’s Half Acre exhibition.
His new show, at Lazarides’ Soho gallery, crafts beauty out of debris and waste – old doors stencilled in gold, chunks of scrap metal, wood and Styrofoam vividly etched with faces in bleach and ink. And as usual, he is leaving his mark on the city with four new faces across East London: an old man on a corner of Hewett Street in Shoreditch; another on the wall of a derelict diner opposite Pontoon Dock DLR station.
“Some are gone the next day, some stay for six years. I like it when the work is two or three years old and has started to age and blend with the texture of the wall. It captures the ephemerality of city life”, he says. “I never have and never want to have absolute control over what I’m doing. In the end, I’m just another layer on the wall.”
To 17 Jan, Lazarides Gallery, London W1 (www.lazinc.com)