New mural part of the Debris Exhibition in Macau.  Photo: José Pando Lucas
New mural part of the Debris Exhibition in Macau. Photo: José Pando Lucas

When Alexandre Farto (aka Vhils) made his debut in Asia – in Shanghai, in 2012 – the gallery Magda Danysz described him as “the new rising star in contemporary art.”

The Portuguese street artist has shone brightly ever since, taking his work to more than 30 destinations across the globe and laying down further foundations in Asia.

In 2015, the Hong Kong Contemporary Art Foundation (HOCA) invited the Portuguese artist in for a residency. After living in Hong Kong for a few months, filming the streets and interviewing people, he began drilling the faces of “everyday heroes” on public walls.

Carving off a street in Macau. Credit: José Pando Lucas

Vhils also turned one of city’s iconic trams into a rolling work of art and produced an installation on the rooftop of a ferry pier in the downtown Central district where he opened his first “Debris” exhibition.

Vhils believes the “walls in a city absorb all the changes a city goes through in a very short period of time” – and he’s developed a bas-relief carving technique whereby he removes the surface layers of walls and the carves in a new visage based on portraits of anonymous citizens.

Part of the exhibition Debris – Works by Alexandre Farto aka Vhils. Photo: Bruno Lopes

“I pick portraits of everyday heroes of the city to juxtapose them with all these layers that the city builds up on,” he says. “It’s almost like an archaeologist process, not on the ground, but on the walls of the city.”

First, Vhils scratches away and then he goes at the surface with a hammer and a drill and carves each part of the wall,“exposing different deepness to get different contrasts”.

“When you’re close to it you can see it’s very raw, but as soon as you go back you can see the other two-dimensions,” says the artist.

Vhils in action. Photo: Jose Pando Lucas

Vhils’ art interventions – where an artist interacts with an existing structure, audience (or event a tram) – have included works made from acid, billboards and neon. He has continually experimented with different approaches to his art throughout his career.

Photo: Bruno Lopes.

In 2014, Vhils created a video for the band U2’s project Films of Innocence. One year later, his portrait of astronaut Andreas Mogensen was fitted into the main window of Observation Cupola, a project related to the film O Sentido da Vida [The Meaning of Life].

Vhils’ relationship with Hong Kong started through his viewing of the films of director Wong Kar-wai (In The Mood For Love) and has evolved to the point where he has now opened a studio in Aberdeen, on the southside of the Hong Kong island.

Sideview of a wall mural in Macau. Photo: José Pando Lucas

Along with this creative space, Vhils has established a workplace in the outskirts of the Portuguese capital Lisbon, in a former industrial hub, a few miles away from where he was born (in 1987) and grew up.

Vhils comes from a working-class neighborhood in the south of the capital, a place that “was almost rural in the 80s and 90s” and later went through an urbanization process.

Photo: Andre Sant

“I felt that process affected me a lot”, he says. “To be here [in Asia] and to see how far urbanization can go, made me learn a lot and made me reflect a lot.”

Vhils started out doing humble tags and illegal graffiti in the Lisbon suburbs, before heading to London to study at the University of the Arts, Central Saint Martins.

“The essence is still there,” he says. “Before the school in London and everything, the graffiti gave me a lot.”

Macau and Hong Kong inspire him “because [they are] the most extreme environments you can live in.”

Part of the exhibition Debris – Works by Alexandre Farto aka Vhils Credit: Bruno Lopes

“What I’m trying to do is to slow down all this pace and make us reflect on the impact of all these changes on us, as people – society and individuals – and how our identity is affected by all those layers”, he says.

Vhils’ work has also graced public walls across in Penang and Bangkok.

The Mils, now a cultural center from the Nan Fung Textiles Group cotton mill. Carving by Vhils

In Hong Kong, he also drilled two portraits of anonymous factory workers into the facade of Mills 6, a former cotton mill turned into a creative complex. The street artist landed in the former Portuguese colony of Macau in December last year, portraying the visage of poet Camilo Pessanha in a wall at the Portuguese Consulate.

In May he returned to Macau again, with a team of helpers in tow as they carved work into five walls in five days, work than now forms the artist’s latest “Debris” exhibition, which will run until November 5.

Vhils is also heading to Beijing for his first solo exhibition – at the Cafa Art Museum, from June 30 to July 23.