Vermibus is not just any street artist. He steals advertisements from locked display cases and alters the images with surgical spirits - removing the branding, the photo retouching and changing the figures into something simultaneously haunting and beautiful. In an interview with PETRIe, Features Editor Katie Aske talks with the man behind the mask.
Katie Aske: Firstly, why did you choose the alias Vermibus?
Vermibus: They say that the word ‘Cadaver’ comes from ‘CAro DAta VERmibus,’ which means ‘flesh given to worms.’ I chose Vermibus as a pseudonym, because seeing the advertising models, after the whole process of transformation that they are subjected to, from the make-up, lights, photo retouching, etc. they stop being individuals and become bait, as their identity is replaced by the brand.
KA: And the man behind the name? How much can you tell us?
V: The only thing I want to say about my private life is that I do not like to talk about it in public.
KA: You trained as an illustrator and photographer in Madrid, how did you end up in Berlin? When did you start doing this type of work, and what was the trigger?
V: When I was working as a photographer in Madrid, I went on a holiday trip to Berlin for three months, with the intention of returning. The agency that I was working for was happy with me and my work, but just before returning they sent an email saying that they were letting me go. I did not meet the aesthetic standards that the client wanted, despite the fact that I was the photographer and was not in any of the photographs. At that moment, I understood that it was time for a change; to focus on what my ethics and my heart were telling me and not what an advertising agency was asking.
KA: What you’re doing is illegal; do you have something against the fashion and beauty industry in particular? What drives you to alter these images?
V: I have nothing against fashion design, it seems to me a very creative world and full of talent, but I am against many of the values that sustain this world. The world of fashion, advertising and in particular the way in which they dictate the ideals of beauty, conflict with my way of thinking - that is what leads me to alter them. My intention is to create an alternative vision and not to surrender in the unidirectional advertising system. I believe in civil disobedience as a necessary part of society: illegal or legal are simply concepts and they have to be confronted with ethics; if it is not ethical it is necessary to go out to the streets and to do the right thing.
KA: Is there a selection process for the posters you choose?
V: The process is more complex than it seems at first sight. What I do, is choose the posters that seem to be more interesting to intervene. Once in the workshop, I treat them with solvent. After modifying the message of the advertisement and having removed the brand, I move them from city to city, always keeping a time between when I take them down and put them back up again. I call it physical and temporary relocation, and this is what I tried to explain in my latest video Dissolving Europe. Of course, before that, I do complex fieldwork to find the way to open the advertising spaces and make the keys.
KA: How have the advertisers reacted to your work?
V: Many people within the world of fashion and advertising (publicists, models, etc) tell me that they love my work because it expresses what they think, but cannot say. Of course there are also people who do not tolerate my work and want me to stop. Other people try to take me to their area and ask me to create a campaign and work for them, but I ignore them.
KA: Have you ever been caught or arrested?
KA: Your work questions identity - does hiding your own complicate that? Is staying anonymous important to you?
V: I appreciate my private life very much, it is something that I want to preserve, also leaving anonymity would not contribute anything, neither to my work, nor to the concept or message.
KA: You are best known in Berlin, but do you travel to different countries to do this work? If so, how do you decide where to travel?
V: In the project ‘Dissolving Europe’ I chose the cities by population density and the interventions were made in the most important commercial areas of each city, like places of cultural interest. I usually work in this simple way, either in Berlin or when I travel.
KA: Do you do any other types of work, artistic or otherwise?
V: Being an artist nowadays - and wanting to live off this - forces you to do many other things besides your work as an artist. A great part of my work is to do all those other things, the communication, the videos, answer to interviews... all are related with what I do; I do not work for any other thing, I am fully focused on my project.
KA: The public display is ephemeral, but your work has been exhibited in galleries and at art fairs. Could you elaborate on the change of context and its implications, from the initial intervention and guerilla-type gesture to exhibiting the pieces as an outlet for the art system?
V: To exhibit my work in a public space and in a gallery or art fair has some difference, but the concept remains the same. Public space offers a direct message without intermediaries and creates an impact on the citizens. At the same time, it is a direct criticism on the advertising media. The gallery offers a different, more intimate space, with time for greater reflection, but the message and the technique do not vary.
KA: You placed your work in the Mario Testino Exhibition “In Your Face” at Berlin Fashion Week this year. Do you feel there is any hypocrisy in exhibiting, even uninvited, in that environment? Would you call yourself a ‘fashion’ artist?
V: From my point of view there is no hypocrisy in putting up illegal work without permission in an exhibition, altering the original message and offering an alternative vision. I did not want it to look like it had been a collaboration but an unauthorised intervention - as was the case. This confusion was exactly the reaction that I wanted to create for visitors.
KA: Have you sold any of your images?
V: I am very lucky to be able to live off my work, doing exactly what I want and not what they ask me to.
KA: What are you working on right now?
V: The only thing I can say is that I am working on new projects and that they will come out at the right time.
Dissolving Europe is available to view here: www.vimeo.com/83356219
Words: Katie Aske
Translated by: Nahal Sadry