The faces of Lisbon
Story by Ben Ehrenreich |Photography by Kerry Murray |Rhapsody September 2016
It is hard to imagine a more unlikely environment for Alexandre Farto, better known as Vhils, than the steep and densely wooded hills above Sintra, about half an hour's drive northwest from Lisbon. Farto is as quintessentially urban as any artist can be. He lives in cities—he keeps a studio in Hong Kong as well as in his native Lisbon—talks about cities, thinks about cities, uses their detritus and their crumbling walls as both his paint and his canvas. He has worked in London, Shanghai, Rio, Los Angeles, Miami, Moscow, Rome, and first and last in Lisbon, where he grew up and still lives on the gritty south bank of the Tagus River. But Sintra is another world, greener than green, the tree trunks coated in ivy and moss, the verdancy broken only by sprays of purple foxgloves and an occasional glimpse, when the low clouds part, of the bright red and yellow 19th-century Palace of Pena, towering above us like a gaudy joke.
Baby-faced, with an intensity to his eyes that belies the softness of his features, Farto stands beneath a neat stack of toppled tree trunks that is easily twice his height. The roughly sawn-off ends of the logs present an almost even surface, which Farto is brushing with a brownish stain. Dressed in a black wool jacket and a hoodie, he looks a bit like a Franciscan monk. While one of his assistants powers up a generator, three others scramble over the tree trunks, painting the exposed wood. Farto plugs in a grinder and carves a few experimental divots, comparing the color of the wood to the stained surface surrounding it. The stippling will soon spread from one log to the next. Slowly, a giant face will take shape, and then another, their eyes open and impassive, staring out at whoever happens to hike by, silently demanding a response. For a while at least: The logs, which fell in a storm, will eventually be taken away as the forest's managers find other uses for them. “So the image," Farto says, “will decompose."
He's smiling when he says it. I ask whether he likes that idea.
“For sure," he replies, nodding. The piece, after all, is “about the ephemerality of everything, the idea that nothing lasts forever."
The aritst stains logs in the woods near Sintra
t's an idea that can be hard to escape in Lisbon, a city that at the height of its wealth and global power was nearly shaken from the face of the Earth. The great earthquake of 1755 was so catastrophic that it almost shattered the Enlightenment faith in the benevolent rationality of the cosmos. (“If this is the best of all possible worlds," worried Voltaire's Candide, “what are the others?") The last century alone saw Portugal shift from hereditary monarchy to dictatorship to democracy, and you can still find traces of these transformations on the art that covers Lisbon's walls.
“The city, Farto came to understand, was a living thing, 'an organism,' as he puts it."
There's a lot of it. With its narrow, winding streets, its hills and staircases and hidden parks, Farto's hometown is an easy one to love. “The city was created for you to get lost in," he says, approvingly. There's plenty to look at while you wander. The sidewalks are adorned with geometric patterns crafted out of stones. The old ceramic tiles—azulejos, they're called—that ornament the facades of so many of the city's buildings depict saints, Christ, and the Virgin, enlisting images of divinity to ward off fresh disasters. Newer murals, enormous and brightly colored, snake over abandoned buildings in the center of town and cover the sides of apartment towers on the outskirts. Some are overtly political, referencing the social movements that emerged after the Carnation Revolution and the fall of Portugal's dictatorship in 1974, as well as the independence campaigns of the country's former colonies. Others are more whimsical: a winged yellow cat with a giant, toothy smile floats at the base of a building on a quiet residential street; a woman walks a dog while a duck looks on; hungry mouths race around the base of concrete rubbish bins.
Farto has had a hand in guiding the city's recent public-art renaissance. Underdogs, the gallery he co-founded in 2013, pairs artists from around the world with city-sanctioned walls. His own contributions—“interventions," he calls them—are difficult to miss.
A collaborative piece by Vhils and Italian muralist Pixel Pancho
A mosaicked portrait of the beloved fado singer Amália Rodrigues, crafted with the same stones that decorate the city's sidewalks, emerges on the wall of a park in the leafy neighborhood of Alfama. A giant, careworn face stares out from the side of an empty building just beneath the 25 de Abril bridge. (Once named for the dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, the bridge was renamed for the date of the revolution that overthrew Salazar's successor.) Its sad, clear eyes confront you as you walk or drive beneath it, as if demanding that you account for your existence. Only when you get closer do you realize that the image is not painted but chiseled into the skin of the building, the different layers of exposed plaster and brick providing the tones for Farto's palette. The geometric patterns that Farto carved around it recall the designs of azulejos: One building calls out to the others, a city to its past.
A relationship with the city's walls runs in Farto's blood. During the revolution, his father plastered Lisbon with wheat-pasted “street journals" to spread news that the censors wouldn't print. Farto was 13 when he started painting the walls of the train yards and abandoned factories of his neighborhood—not faces then, just the five-letter tag VHILS, which he chose, he says, because it was easy to paint and didn't spell anything in any language that he knew of. Hip-hop came late to Portugal, and the graffiti that came with it was a revelation to kids like Farto, a way to make the mute walls of the city speak. He remembers watching the peeling, sun-faded remnants of the old post-revolutionary murals give way to shiny advertisements. He and his friends painted over the billboards and watched as new ads covered up their tags. The city, Farto came to understand, was a living thing, “an organism," as he puts it. Even freshly plastered and whitewashed into blankness, its walls were pregnant with history. “I started asking," Farto says, “'Why am I adding to this?'"
Vhils at work in his Barreiro studio
In 2004, while still in his teens, he decided to take an opposite approach. He started slicing strategically into billboards with razors, using the images he uncovered beneath, the layers of ads pasted over ads, to create entirely new images. “It was almost an archaeological process," he says. The next year, for the first time, he began carving into a wall with drills and chisels, using the colors he unearthed to sculpt a face. “It's always this idea, to destroy in order to create, to make what is invisible visible." That first piece is gone now, but one of the last conventional murals he painted before shifting techniques survives just across the street, around the block from Underdogs, in the trendy, formerly industrial district of Braço de Prata. It's a black-and-white cityscape: skyscrapers, street lamps, traffic lights and pylons in ominous, lifeless silhouette. “I started to zoom in," Farto says, “and the people came through."
“It's about the ephemerality of everything, the idea that nothing lasts forever."
By 2008, Farto was studying art in London, and Banksy, probably the most famous living artist to come out of the graffiti scene, invited him to take part in a street-art festival in a tunnel beneath the city. He carved a face into the tunnel's wall, this one staring impassively at the Banksy mural beside it. Banksy's agent took him on, and Farto, by now better known as Vhils, was quickly propelled into art-world celebrity. Soon he was working everywhere from Norway to Colombia. Museums were buying his work. He rented a studio—in the neighborhood of Barreiro, not far from where he grew up—that's the size of a small airplane hangar. (Appropriately, it once housed a recycling plant.) His staff of 10 keeps offices there, amid the stacks of old lumber and billboards that Farto and his assistants salvage from demolition sites around town.
A Vhils mural on a wall in one of Lisbon's abandoned shipyards
When his renown at home became too much, Farto started spending time in Hong Kong. Neon-lit and intensely efficient, it's the opposite of Lisbon, he notes with a laugh. But Lisbon always draws him back. The faces he's carved stare out from walls all over town, a part of the living city. There are four of them in Braço de Prata, not far from his gallery and across the street from his last surviving painted mural. There's one in an alley in the ancient, picturesque neighborhood of Alfama; another on a long, art-bedecked wall in the old warehouse district of Alcântara; another covering a five-story building in an abandoned shipyard on the far side of the river. Their expressions all feature those wide-open eyes, those silent, demanding stares.
Often, he first encounters his subjects in the streets. “Sometimes I never see them again," Farto says. Their anonymity is part of the point: not to pay tribute to an individual, he says, but to force people to pause “and see themselves."
Many of Farto's murals have already been destroyed. He not only knows that all of them will, at some point, be painted or plastered over, demolished to make way for something new—he accepts it gladly. “Nothing lasts forever," he says again, and smiles. “I like that."
Jessica Kimbrough, currently Labor Relations and Legal Strategy Managing Director, will take on the new role of Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer Managing Director.
Jessica assumes this new and expanded position to focus on global inclusion and equity as part of our enhanced commitment to ensure best practices across the business to strengthen our culture.
In this role, Jessica will be responsible for helping United redefine our efforts on diversity, equity and inclusion – ensuring that our programs and approach are strategic, integrated and outcome-oriented, while we continue to build a culture that reflects our core values. She will report to Human Resources and Labor Relations EVP Kate Gebo.
"Jessica's appointment to this role is another critical step our executive team is taking to ensure diversity, equity and inclusion remains a top priority at United," said CEO Scott Kirby. "Given her drive, experience and commitment to champion collaboration and allyship among our employee business resource groups, she is uniquely qualified to take on this position and I look forward to working closely with her."
As Labor Relations and Legal Strategy Managing Director, Jessica worked closely with senior management to create and maintain positive labor relations among our unionized workforce, providing counsel on labor litigation, negotiations, contract administration, organizing issues and managing attorneys who represent United in labor relations. Previously, she served as Labor and Employment Counsel in our legal department.
Jessica has a passion for creating a pipeline of diverse lawyers and leaders, and was honored as one of Chicago Defender's "Women of Excellence" for excellence in her career and civic engagement in 2017. She currently serves as President of uIMPACT, our women's employee business resource group.
Jessica's new role is effective immediately.
By working together and strengthening partnerships during these unprecedented times, our global community has overcome challenges and created solutions to keep the global supply chain moving. As COVID-19 continues to disrupt the shipping landscape, United and our industry partners have increasingly demonstrated our commitment to the mission of delivering critical medical supplies across the world.
United Cargo has partnered with DSV Air and Sea, a leading global logistics company, to transport important pharmaceutical materials to places all over the world. One of the items most critical during the current crisis is blood plasma.
Plasma is a fragile product that requires very careful handling. Frozen blood plasma must be kept at a very low, stable temperature of negative 20 degrees Celsius or less – no easy task considering it must be transported between trucks, warehouses and airplanes, all while moving through the climates of different countries. Fortunately, along with our well-developed operational procedures and oversight, temperature-controlled shipping containers from partners like va-Q-tec can help protect these sensitive blood plasma shipments from temperature changes.
A single TWINx shipping container from va-Q-tec can accommodate over 1,750 pounds of temperature-sensitive cargo. Every week, DSV delivers 20 TWINx containers, each one filled to capacity with human blood plasma, for loading onto a Boeing 787-9 for transport. The joint effort to move thousands of pounds of blood plasma demonstrates that despite the distance, challenges in moving temperature-sensitive cargo and COVID-19 obstacles, we continue to find creative solutions with the help of our strong partnerships.
United Cargo is proud to keep the commercial air bridges open between the U.S. and the rest of the world. Since March 19, we have operated over 3,200 cargo-only flights between six U.S. hubs and over 20 cities in Asia, Australia, Europe, South America, India, the Caribbean and the Middle East.
A message from UNITE, United Airlines Multicultural Business Resource Group
Fellow United team members –
Hello from the UNITE leadership team. While we communicate frequently with our 3,500 UNITE members, our platform doesn't typically extend to the entire United family, and we are grateful for the opportunity to share some of our thoughts with all of you.
Tomorrow is June 19. On this day in 1865, shortened long ago to "Juneteenth," Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, to announce that the Civil War had ended and all enslaved individuals were free. For many in the African-American community, particularly in the South, it is recognized as the official date slavery ended in the United States.
Still, despite the end of slavery, the Constitutional promise that "All men are created equal" would overlook the nation's Black citizens for decades to come. It wasn't until nearly a century later that the Civil Rights Act (1964) ended legal segregation and the Voting Rights Act (1965) protected voting rights for Black Americans. But while the nation has made progress, the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd have made it undeniably clear that we still have a lot of work to do to achieve racial parity and inclusion.
Two weeks ago, Scott and Brett hosted a virtual town hall and set an important example by taking a minute, as Brett said, "to lower my guard, take off my armor, and just talk to you. And talk to you straight from the heart."
Difficult conversations about race and equity are easy to avoid. But everyone needs to have these conversations – speaking honestly, listening patiently and understanding that others' experiences may be different from your own while still a valid reflection of some part of the American experience.
To support you as you consider these conversations, we wanted to share some resources from one of United's partners, The National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum will host an all-day Virtual Juneteenth Celebration to recognize Juneteenth through presentations, stories, photographs and recipes. The museum also has a portal that United employees can access called Talking About Race, which provides tools and guidance for everyone to navigate conversations about race.
Our mission at UNITE is to foster an inclusive working environment for all of our employees. While we are hopeful and even encouraged by the widespread and diverse show of support for African Americans around the country – and at United - we encourage everyone to spend some time on Juneteenth reflecting on racial disparities that remain in our society and dedicating ourselves to the work that still must be done to fight systemic racism. By honoring how far we've come and honestly acknowledging how far we still must go, we believe United – and the incredible people who are the heart and soul of this airline - can play an important role in building a more fair and just world.
UNITE (United Airlines Multicultural Business Resource Group)
Together, we are facing an unprecedented challenge. United Together, we rise to meet that challenge.
Calling all AvGeeks and travelers! Here's a fun way to take your next video call….from a United Polaris® seat, the cockpit or cruising altitude. We're introducing United-themed backgrounds for use on Zoom and Microsoft Teams, video conferencing tools that many people are using to stay connected.
So for your next meeting or catch up with friends and family, download the app to either your computer or mobile device to get started. If you've already downloaded Zoom you can skip ahead to updating your background image (see instructions below).
To use on Zoom:
- Start here by downloading your favorite United image to your computer or mobile device. Just click "download" in the bottom left corner of the image.
- Next go to your Zoom app (you'll need to download the app to access backgrounds) and click on the arrow to the right of your video camera icon in the bottom of the screen.
- From here select, "choose virtual background" to upload your uniquely United photo.
- Start by downloading your favorite United image to your computer. Just click "download" in the bottom left corner of the image.
- If you're using a PC, copy the image you want to use into this folder:
- C:\[insert your device user name here]\AppData\Microsoft\Teams\Backgrounds\Uploads
- If you're using a Mac copy the images to this folder on your computer:
- /users/<username>/Library/Application Support/Microsoft/Teams/Backgrounds/Uploads
- If you're using a PC, copy the image you want to use into this folder:
- Once you start a Teams meeting, click the "…" in the menu bar and select "Show background effects" and your image should be there
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