Over the passing of time there are many layers of history that become hidden from view, that is, until someone has the will to go looking for them. These tiers can be found across cities, in music, art, even in the lives of people. As a teenager, Portuguese street artist Vhils began searching for narratives that revealed more than what appeared at face value.
Vhils, born Alexandre Farto in 1987, grew up in a suburb of Lisbon following the end of the Carnation Revolution in 1974, according to a promotional book published by Hennessy in celebration of the company’s recent collaboration with the artist. The abolishment of the coup d’état sparked an era of free expression that came abundantly in many forms. One of which was street art. Several structures across Lisbon were decorated in politically charged tapestries up until the ’80s when the city’s infrastructure ripened and many of those paintings were covered up with advertising and forgotten. As a youth, Farto spent much of his time tagging the sides of buildings, along trains and across billboards with his chosen tag “Vhils”. The name itself has no meaning. For him the letters were simply the easiest to write in a short amount of time as to avoid being caught by police.
While taking to the streets of his city, spray can in hand, Vhils took note of the crumbling murals from a time long passed that stood all around him each with its own unique message.
“I realized that everyone was adding to the walls,” says Vhils, during a sit-down interview in New York. Over time graffiti was scribbled over brick, paint plastered over graffiti, posters glued over paint and eventually graffiti would mask the posters. The walls were no longer just walls to the young graffiti artist; they were time capsules.
“I came up with the idea to ‘paint’ by exposing the layers that are underneath the wall.”
Vhils swapped out his spray cans for a hammer and began chiseling through brick, concrete and stone to uncover the veiled histories beyond the walls themselves. He began experimenting with construction tools and even explosives to craft breath-taking portraits that can now be found worldwide.
“I learned each place has its own layers of time. It’s not the same at all if you break a wall in New York, [as] one in Lisbon or one in Hong Kong. It’s very different and usually these layers reflect a lot of what that city went through because the walls reveal all these different stories through the passage of time.”
It was this concept that connected Vhils to the cognac brand Hennessy for its Very Special Limited Edition bottle campaign. Both Hennessy and Vhils utilize unique components and the passing of time to manifest a seamlessly original product. Seized by their shared ideals, Vhils dug into the memoirs of Hennessy going back almost 250 years to fashion a new bottle for the brand’s annual artist series. Using a combination of acid, bleach and ink the ‘urban archeologist’, as he’s often referred, created a new label that incorporates various elements of Hennessy’s history including the brand’s coat of arms and its 3-Star logo from the 1930s.
Building on his work with Hennessy, Vhils suggested an additional venture in several cities including New York and Chicago to celebrate the spirit of the whiskey powerhouse.
“I proposed for us to do an intervention in each city where I would create something that would pay homage to people who are pushing boundaries in their community,” explains Vhils.
Kicking off in New York, he linked up with DJ and son of the late Jam Master Jay of RUN-D.M.C., TJ Mizell (Growing Up Hip-Hop) after hearing about the work he’s done with the Jam Master Jay Foundation for Music. The organization, founded by Mizell’s mother Terri Corley-Mizell, was created to help continue the legacy of JMJ about a year after his passing. The foundation provides funding as well as resources for free music programs in schools where there is a need. In addition to DJing and producing music Mizell helps run the foundation by visiting schools, organizing charity events and introducing children to the many elements of music.
After hearing Mizell’s story, the street artist constructed a detailed portrait of the DJ on a brick wall in the Lower East Side part of Manhattan in commemoration of the impact he’s had on his city and within music.
“He’s been doing music and is very active in his community and the work that he’s doing through the foundation,” says Vhils. “It’s very touching the way that he’s been working so it was a perfect match.”
Moving forward, one of Vhils’ major ambitions is to continue highlighting exceptional artists and to find creative ways of giving back to communities across the world.
Editor’s note: This writer went on a press trip to New York City for the launch of the Vhils Hennessy bottle launch. Hennessy did not have any editorial say in this content.
Feature photos & first slideshow courtesy of Hennessy Canada & Second slideshow photos by. Sadé Powell