Meet the Berlin Street Artist Waging War Against Advertising

May 06, 2014 at 10:59 AM ET

Advertisements are everywhere these days, especially in a city like Berlin, where billboard and street-level displays seem to cover every nook and cranny. That’s why Vermibus, a well-known Berlin-based artist, is waging war against them.

Born in Spain, the 26-year-old came to Germany three years ago looking for a community of artists and a cheap place to create his work. Since then, he’s been stealing ads and transforming them with heavy brush strokes of death and decay. When he’s finished, he hangs his creations back where he found them. The results can be shocking.

Last year he took the show on the road, defacing advertisements around Europe. I spoke to Vermibus recently about why he hates ads and what inspired his gallery show later this month at Stattbad, an old, empty swimming pool here in Berlin.

Why has your work focused on outdoor advertising?

Outdoor advertising is advantageous for the advertiser and disadvantageous for the citizen, since it’s there and there’s no way not to see it. It’s a direct message that gives viewers examples of how to be, what to have and how to live. In any other advertising medium, you have the opportunity to remove the ad, whether you’re turning off a television or the radio or installing a plug-in to remove Internet advertising. In the public space, there is no way to remove it, and there is almost no regulation in this regard. That is important to question publicly.

Why did you leave the world of graffiti and get into this type of art?

I started painting graffiti at 10 years old. At that age you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing or the impact it may have, and you have no thought about why you do it. Through the years, I realized there are many barriers in the world of graffiti. It is a very closed world, with more communication from artist to artist than to citizen. When I arrived in Berlin, I wanted to break all sorts of personal and artistic barriers and start again. It’s far easier from the outset when you have no social pressure from friends and family. I just came to Berlin, no one knew me, and I had absolute freedom.

In past interviews you have said that your art subverts the conventional notion of beauty. How so?

As an artist, I pose questions based on my personal thoughts, but I see no authority to give me answers. The ad does the opposite: It gives you the answers but does not want you to think. When society only hears a single voice speaking and grants authority to that voice, terrible things happen.

Do you think that as a society, we need fewer ads? Or is there a larger message to your art?

We want to have everything for free—free music, free movies, free apps—but with free, someone has to pay. The lifestyle we have now is inculcated by advertising, with the consumer world dictating that you have to have everything. If you want things for free, then you can have it so long as you do not question that the service is paid for by consuming excessive amounts of ads or selling private information to advertisers so they can be more effective in their campaigns. The point of all this is that we have created exorbitant needs, which we are not willing to pay for, but then we don’t like the consequences. I think we’ve reached a point where we realized that there is too much advertising, but we focus on the surface of the problem when the solution would be to address the root of it.