LISBON (Reuters) - Portuguese artist Alexandre Farto, known by the tag name VHILS from his graffiti days, literally shakes the foundations when he explodes powder charges inserted into stucco facades, or drills and carves into bricks and concrete with power tools.
As dust settles, stunningly lifelike pictures of rugged faces are revealed. Their vivid, deep eyes stare at passersby from walls in Sydney and Shanghai, Moscow and London, Rio de Janeiro and Honolulu, and many places in between.
The 27-year-old's fame has recently outgrown the boundaries of street art, with his first large personal exhibition hitting the museum circuit earlier this year. Just this week he launched a video crafted for the Irish band U2.
The video "Raised by Wolves", filmed in slow motion to capture VHILS's explosive creations in the suburbs of Lisbon where he was born, is part of the Films of Innocence project, "a visionary collection of 11 films by the world’s most vital urban visual artists", according to U2's website.
It was Lisbon and its suburbs, with the decadent charm of dilapidated facades, abandoned warehouses and 1970s revolutionary murals now covered with layers of advertising and graffiti, that inspired VHILS to swap the spray can for carving tools around 2004 and later add explosives to his arsenal.
"I was always interested in those places that expose a bit of the city's fragility, show that everything is ephemeral," VHILS told Reuters in his Lisbon studio, once a garage.
His art is often described as destructive, but he considers it no more destructive than poetry is to a clean sheet of paper.
Many of his more indoor-style works are made of layers of old posters, paint and plaster scraped off walls.
"Digging into those layers, you expose the entrails of the city ... Walls reflected the changes that were happening."
He says the 2010 financial crisis in Portugal and southern Europe, reminiscent of the pre-European Union era, gave him the idea to use explosives: "Sometimes a spark is needed. Explosions show the historic cycle, bring old layers back to the surface."
The technique, which involves powder charges ranging from 0.5 to 2 grams inserted into holes of varying depth drilled in cement and covered with stucco, took a year to develop.
Faces he portrays are of common folk "who just struggle to survive".
"The idea is to make visible those who are practically invisible in the city, humanize public spaces," he said.
Taking his art to a museum meant overcoming a barrier between street art and fine art. But he said "this separation, which is limiting to artists, will disappear... there'll be more dialogue" thanks to the rich visual content available to the new generation via the Internet, even if they are not arts students.
Having staged his first museum exhibition this year at Lisbon's EDP, VHILS is in talks to show his work abroad. But he says "the street is still the biggest museum in the world".
Reporting By Andrei Khalip; Editing by Michael Roddy and Mark Trevelyan