Q&A: Street Artist Vhils On New Hennessy Bottle Label

Graffitist Vhils has taken his work from the streets of Lisbon, and beyond, and lately, his artistic imprint has been etched on the newest Hennessy Very Special cognac bottle label.

Hennessy commissioned the design, which Vhils says reflects as much an homage to the company’s advertisements of the past, as its modern feel.

Born in 1987, Vhils was raised in a suburb of Lisbon. By his teens, he was already bringing his art to the public scene by spray-painting on trains, walls and billboards.

At the time, his country was going through transformations of its own, having freed itself from a fifty year dictatorship in 1974. Throughout the 70s and 80s, graffiti artists responded to the political upheaval with their own expressions on building exteriors and murals.

“I remember all these painted walls that were all crumbling and fading in the sun,” Vhils notes.

Not merely content to utilize paint, however, his art eventually took a more vandalistic direction, using tools such as chisels, explosives, hammers and razors, to chip at billboards or brick, to create portraiture.

“I started to see the walls of the city not just as walls, but as something that absorbs the changes a city and country goes through, something that absorbs the layers of history. So, I came up with an idea: break into the wall… to create images,” he explains.

“I saw myself almost as an archaeologist, trying to expose these layers of change, and to make people reflect on the impact of that change upon themselves.”

Since he exhibited in London at the 2008 “Cans festival” – a street artist event – Vhils, then 20, exploded onto the global art scene, and today has about 200 pieces of his art shown around the world. The Times of London proclaimed of Vhils’ work: “here is one of the finest examples of world street art in years.”

With the benefit of his art being shown in many nations, he says the cross-cultural exposure helped in visualizing the new design concept, for a cognac enjoyed amongst 140 countries.

Pursuit interviewed Vhils off the heels of his recent collaboration with Hennessy cognac.

Pursuit: I’d like to know about your artistic influences.

VHILS: My main influences from the beginning were a lot of the graffiti artists coming out of New York– to all the first artists who were mostly doing trains. I was very connected with the culture of graffiti. So, those were the main people who I started to watch their work since I was very young.

Later on, I went to study at Byam Shaw (in England) and I started to see other artists, as well. Bansky is a street artist I connected to. Gordon Matta-Clark was a huge influence on me. He’d been in the public space in a very different manner, and in a way that was bringing the urban space to the gallery context. Then, he was doing an intervention in a public space as well. Katherina Grosse as well is an artist that works with largescale work.

My kind of background and school which was in the graffiti world gave me a lot of the mindset of working on the public space – most of the time illegally. Then, after it was a lot of artists that were working on a public space, but giving a different reading to it.

Pursuit: You just said ‘illegally’ – ever a second thought, whether something should or shouldn’t be done?

VHILS: I have my own limits of what I do, where I do. But when I was starting, it was basically abandoned buildings. So, it was illegal, but it was in places that nobody really cared about. It was a big part of what I was doing in the beginning; I don’t do that much anymore. But it was a big part of giving me the strength to create on a public space. Of course, I had second thoughts, and I got arrested several times, but it’s part of growing up and doing my own thing.

Pursuit: Did you just say you got arrested several times?

VHILS: Yes. No, it’s okay. It was just graffiti. In Portugal, it’s not as bad as in a lot of other countries, because it’s kind of permissive. People expect that you paint on public spaces.

Pursuit: The collaboration, with you and Hennessey. What do you want the bottle design to say, what is its message?

VHILS: The invitation came with complete freedom … I went to Cognac (France) several times, so I understood the work, how it is done. It was very interesting to learn the whole process of the creation of the cognac itself.

I also went into their archives, so I found very old material that was done for advertising for Hennessey. I got really inspired by those old posters and all the history on them. I based all the work that I did on the visual imagery that was created by the advertisements through the years, to inspire me in creating the final design.

In a way, it’s kind of bringing all this imagery from the past to look to the future.

[Photo: Jean-Marc Lubrano]

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