Scratching The Surface Of Vhils' Explosive Graffiti Work [Interview]

A few weeks ago an incredible, slow-motion exploding graffiti video (above) was circulating around the internet. The work of Portuguese-born, UK-based street artist Alexandre Farto (aka Vhils) in collaboration with Portuguese hip-hop/soul band Orelha Negra, the video quickly went viral as the online community was collectively blown away (ahem, excuse the pun) by the stunning visuals and innovative technique. We’ve seen tons of inventive and tech-inspired approaches to graffiti and street art as of late, ranging from Graffiti Research Labs L.A.S.E.R. tag project, to the Facadeprinter, to SMS Slingshot, but the idea of rigging explosives to a plaster wall and watching a design take shape as the dust clears was entirely new and exciting to us.

While Farto’s work always makes use of in situ materials, re-imagining the decrepit facades of the urban landscape as portraits underscoring the humane aspect of city life, we’ve never seen him work in this fashion. There were even some questions and speculations about whether the video was even real, since this wouldn’t be the first time the internet has been duped by some clever post production, so we decided to go straight to the source and catch up with Alexandre about the project, his process and the motivations behind his work.

The Creators Project: How do you go about creating your street art designs? What’s the process typically like—from conceptualization to execution?
Alexandre Farto aka Vhils:
I usually mark the drawing on the wall and then carve the (plaster) surface layer. The contrast between the different layers of the wall creates the final result. I always try to have a fixed element (the stencil, which is applied to the poster, metal, or the wall [and is then] chiseled away), but also variable elements, such as the nature of the materials, which change and dictate the final form of the piece.

It’s never me who determines the final form of a piece. I never have and never want to have absolute control over what I’m doing—I like the unexpected and the uncertain. I am interested in working with what one can’t control; it is this ephemeral character which I’m interested in exploring: the inconstancy and impermanence of matter. My pieces are in permanent transformation—an intentional transformation. The entire scope of human endeavor has been aimed at fixating, at creating institutional structures which can oppose change, [which can] maintain. Nature is the exact opposite of this [and is in] a permanent state of transformation, mutation, and change. I’m interested not only in highlighting this ephemeral condition, but also in instigating it, in encouraging it.

What are your favorite materials and techniques to use? How and why did you start experimenting with these materials and techniques?
[My material is] everything that is boring in a city, so almost everything. My work tries to expose/confront/question realities generated in and by these concrete jungles we live in. The intention is to raise issues, to provoke thought, not to provide any clear answers—to try and make people question things on their own by creating contrasts and friction between things. I find the process itself to be more important and more interesting than the final result. I am very interested in the ephemeral nature of things which surrounds us ever since we are born, the permanent changing character of things.

While growing up in the suburbs of Lisbon, in Portugal, I witnessed the changes that came over urban society as being particularly acute in the open, out on the streets—the overlapping contrast between the old 1970s revolutionary murals and 1990s capitalist advertising, between the glamor of the new and the decadence of the old, between idealism and consumption—these left a definite imprint on me while growing up in an urban environment that was undergoing relentless development.

It seems like the process(es) you employ would make it difficult to be discrete, which is something I imagine is problematic for a street artist. Have you encountered any difficulties? And how do you work around them?
It depends on the process and the place, but nowadays the best is actually [to have people] assume you’re just city worker—get a yellow vest, a drill and suddenly nobody cares.

In the Orelha Negra collaboration that you recently released, you use some pretty impressive pyrotechnics to create your designs. What exactly did this process entail?
In terms of concept, my work [often deals with] the profusion of layers that compose the structure of the forms and objects of our urban cultural universe. [These] are taken as an allegorical representation of the accumulation of individual and collective experiences in the course of the historical process which, following a manifestly destructive formalist practice, [I aim] to remove in a symbolic act of archaeology.

Yet, whereas the previous series of my work (Scratching the Surface—work on street posters, walls and other derelict surfaces) aimed at expressing and representing the search for an essence lost under those layers, in this video and project, which I call “Detritos,” I propose to explore this in an even more intense way, resorting to processes that are even more brutal. [The work underscores] the fragility and volatility of the cultural constructs of civilization and education in the contemporary condition of large urban centers, in which the intensification of social and economic pressures can easily crack the glossy varnish that covers the surface and the appearance of things, bringing to the surface primal and raw manifestations which in times of stability and comfort are relativized and forgotten, buried in the distant past, perceived as duly tamed and stabilized.

In terms of process, I first carved the images into pure cemented walls and then I use plaster (which is weaker than pure cement) to attach some explosive charges. In the end, I cover all of the drawing and blow it up. It´s all filmed with a slow motion camera, in this case a Phantom Miro ex4. Then we make some adjustments to the speed and video corrections in post-production.

Was this your first time working with explosives?
Yes, with really good technicians.

We’ve been seeing a lot of tech-fueled graffiti and street art projects lately—tons of stuff from Graffiti Research Labs, the Facade Printer, SMSlingshot—what do you think it is about street art that inspires these kind of inventive projects?
The whole background of pure graffiti is there, it´s just adapted to different mediums.

All images courtesy of Alexandre Farto.