Portuguese street artist Vhils has one of the most recognisable styles in the world. Instead of spraying his work, he chisels and drills his incredibly detailed pieces (usually portraits) into the wall on a grand scale. He’s one of the few artists who can say they specialise in drills, acid etchings, pieces on reclaimed wood and Styrofoam.
I guess a lot of Londoners would recognise you most from your piece in Truman Brewery – do you ever get asked to go back and touch stuff up?
For me, when I finish the piece, it’s not finished. It needs time to let plants grow on it and adjust to the humidity. I prefer it when pieces adapt to the space rather than keeping them as they were in the beginning, they should get old and evolve. I like it when the paint gets old, changes colour and fades. Art has a big problem with everything that is ephemeral and the nature of the materials I use and the work I do is ephemeral, so for me it’s a plus and not a minus. I like it to age and it become part of the city.
Have you ever had a wall fall down while you were working on it?
Yes! I had a three-metre wall that I was carving something really small on the bottom and then it just suddenly fell down on top of me.
Er, ouch! Or have you nearly finished a piece, made a mistake and had to re-plaster it?
Even then I avoid doing that – it’s the dialogue with the material and the wall so you have to adapt. With a lot of walls you can see that they’re losing big chunks so it’s part of the process and I’d prefer to use it as it is rather than try to fix it to make it perfect. You never know what you’re going to find under all the layers on the wall. You need to feel the wall and whether or not you can go stronger or go more slowly. Each wall is a totally different case.
It’s a lot noisier than a spray can. Do police come up to you, presume you’re a workman, and let you carry on drilling into the wall?
That’s actually one of the good things about working the way I do! A lot of the times it is legal and we have permission and we have cranes and stuff. I have done it illegally before and you just have to wear your high-vis vest with confidence and they just think you’re being paid to break a wall.
Photo: Tom Medwell