It moves, it glows: Vhils' ode to the neon city

Story highlights

  • Portuguese street artist "Vhils" is known for drilling giant faces into building facades
  • A residency in Hong Kong has seen him turn the city's walls and tram into works of art
  • He has now opened his first Hong Kong solo show, with plans to take the exhibition global

Hong Kong (CNN)Whether it's blowing up a building façade in Berlin to reveal a carving of a man's face or drilling portraits into favela walls in Rio de Janeiro, raucous street artist Alexandre Farto, who goes by the tag "Vhils," has left an imprint on urban landscapes across the globe.

Hong Kong's tunnels and trams have been his most recent canvas and the result has just been unveiled in "Debris," the artist's first solo exhibition in the city, featured at sites across the Central financial district.
    "It's stimulating for me to try do things here because it's not so expected," 29-year-old Vhils says of the flashy, fast-paced commercial hub of Hong Kong. "This is my longest project in a city besides the one where I was born."

    Urban faces

    Timed to coincide with Art Basel Hong Kong 2016, "Debris" explores Vhils' love-hate relationship with Hong Kong's metropolis. It's a place he's called home since last August, after the Hong Kong Contemporary Art (HOCA) Foundation invited him to do an artist residency.
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    The privately financed group, which hosts shows for international street artists, have also funded the large-scale exhibition.
    Using the breakneck speed of Hong Kong and its inhabitants as inspiration, Vhils and his team have been transforming the city's urban landscape, cutting portraits into public walls and carving into advertisements he plastered onto one of the city's much-loved functioning trams.
    All the works are based on portraits of anonymous Hong Kong citizens that Vhils has sketched or photographed and combined together to create a new visage.

    A photo posted by Vhils (@vhils) on

    "Usually the faces are juxtaposed with elements from the city, which are a reflection on our identity, expectations of life or what we want to achieve," he says. "Even our dreams are given by information in the public space."
    A tunnel on the roof of a ferry pier in the heart of the financial district, forms the spine of the exhibition, with nine rooms leading into different bodies of work, including his first experiments with neon.
    Altogether, the exhibition will feature more than 20 works of art, including a video installation and etched metal works.
    "I'm trying to make people go inside and stop to look at beauty of everyday life that we pass by but don't realize," he says.

    One of the world's fattest cities

    As evidenced by the vibrant papers strewn across his studio in Aberdeen, an aptly industrial part of Hong Kong Island, billboard posters are a key material for Vhils.
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    "They are like fossils that you can archeologically excavate to explore the chaotic overlaying [of information] that happens in a city," explains the artist.
    Raised in a working-class neighborhood in an industrial suburb near Lisbon, Vhils first started doing illegal graffiti and "train bombing" -- at the age of 13.
    He began carving art into billboard posters around age 16 and remembers observing old political murals created after Portugal's Carnation Revolution, the peaceful coup in 1974 that ended Europe's longest dictatorship. 
    "They were forgotten—fading away in the sun and crumbling," he recalls. "On the other hand you had huge billboards coming up so it was two completely different systems using the public space that were confronting each other. Eventually the billboards went on top of the murals."
    Vhils carved this mural into the side of a building in Lisbon in 2014.
    Vhils saw this as a metaphor for how the once idealistic dreams of the country's future were replaced by consumerist desire.
    "It was almost like the city was getting fatter by a few centimeters and this was reflecting changes in the whole country," he says of the build-up of advertisements. "When I started to travel I realized in each city the walls absorb similar changes."
    Now world famous for the spectacular giant portraits he carves into the sides of buildings and billboard advertising, he describes Hong Kong as one of the "fattest" cities he has worked in.
    "The fast pace that happens in the city also appears on the walls," he says, noting that six works of art he has created on billboards have already disappeared under fresh layers of advertising, a reflection of the city's rampant consumerism.

    Neon inspiration

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    Vhils said he has dreamed about Hong Kong since he was a teenager: "I was always close to cinema and Wong Kar-wai -- his first movies, the presence of neons, the image that you create of Hong Kong because it was my way of traveling there."
    Now that he's arrived, the city still looms large in his imagination, and he hopes to showcase the incredible new output it has spawned across other parts of Asia, Europe and the United States.
    Although his residency was due to end in March 2016, Vhils said he has become so inspired by the city that he plans to stay, while also maintaining his studio in Lisbon.
    "I'm really happy here," he says. "With all that I hate and love in the city...it allowed me to evolve my work."
    Vhils' multi-site exhibition "Debris," runs from March 21 to April 4, 2016. Other works, including the tram, will be cropping up across the city throughout the month of March.