« Every time I think I’ve painted something slightly original, I find out that Blek le Rat has done it as well, only 20 years earlier »
This is what street art legend Banksy said about fellow artist Blek Le Rat.
But who is this ”Blek le Rat”?
Blek, whose real name is Xavier Prou, was born in 1952 in Paris, and is considered as one of the godfathers of street art and more precisely of stencil art. While he was studying fine art and architecture at Beaux-Arts in Paris, Blek visited New York City shortly before graduating in 1982. This trip changed his life as he developed a fascination with the city’s street art.
When Blek came back to France, he started working with local teens in abandoned buildings. It is when he saw them tagging empty cabins that he decided to adopt graffiti and bring this new art form he discovered in NYC to Parisian streets.
His pseudonym Blek le Rat comes from an Italian comic called Blek le Roc. He changed ”le Roc” to ”le Rat”, because, to him, this animal represents both freedom and the propagation of art in the city as if it were a disease. The second reason for this choice is because if you rearrange the letters, rat becomes art. The animal will quickly become his signature, and the artist had soon painted hundreds of rats on the streets of Paris.
The location has always been most important in his work as he always aims to reflect the mood of the places where his pieces appear. That’s also the main reason he worked primarily with black and white, to recreate the atmosphere of the street. However, what made his work stand out was that he created most of his stencils by hand, allowing him to control the detail in each piece. This way of doing made an instant impression with fellow artists. In the mid-80s, life-sized crayon drawings creator David Hockney inspired Blek to try larger stencils. This innovation in his art would later credit him as the inventor of full-scale human character stencils.
Blek spent the years between 1990 and 2000 working on the streets. In 1991, after he got arrested by the French police, his real name was revealed by these latter. That was the beginning of harassment by the police in the USA, Argentina, and the UK.
At the early stages of his career, Blek described his work as apolitical. He justified himself by saying that his art was just a way to differentiate himself from the rest of the population, and therefore, he tried to flee this feeling of anonymity one can have when living in a big city.
However, later in his career, Blek started to use his work to sent messages. Concerned by the homeless and poverty situation in Paris, he created a series of pieces that depicted homeless people and beggars. The purpose of the project was to draw people’s attention to their struggle.
When doing this project, Blek realised the irony that was present. People would walk past homeless persons without stopping, but would take the time to stop and talk about a painting of a homeless man on a wall. Anyway, the purpose of creating a picture and reproducing it all over Paris was to attract people’s attention and encouraged them to talk about a subject.
In 2005, a few days after French Journalist Florence Aubenas’ kidnapping, Blek started creating portraits around where she worked and the places that she was closest to. This project provoked a strong emotional reaction to the population and the press, resulting in her portrait becoming a worldwide known symbol. During the journalist’s captivity, Blek participated in several radio and television shows to talk about her situation. This helped to reach a global audience and forced people to take notice even after the posters were removed.
Overall, Blek le Rat has tried and, to some extent, succeeded to change the way society perceives itself. He improved his technique over the years and created a relationship with well known yet dormant ideas and beliefs of the population in his city. With his innovative use of stencil graffiti, he has created both, a new medium for the subculture, but also a way to dedicate his work towards a cause, giving his work a voice through the public’s perception, which enabled him to confront different social issues such as the ones mention earlier. This interaction he created with the public through his art highlights an important outcome of street art and presented an exemplary medium for artistic political engagement.
For more pictures of his work click here.