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The Influence of Blek le Rat
Street Stencils, Rats and Walls
One of the godfathers of the European street art movement, Blek le Rat inspired hundreds of artists around the world with his stenciled style. He is frequently cited as a major influence of artists like Banksy and Space Invader, and through his work in Paris he established a style of urban art that quickly spread through Europe and eventually the United States.
Despite the enormous role he played in 1980s and 1990s street art, Blek le Rat kept a low profile through most of his career to avoid prison time, fines and public harassment. He struggled years before urban art was a somewhat acceptable genre, documenting his own works and trying to find ways to make a living as a professional artist. He set the stage for an artistic revolution through years of absolute obscurity.
Graffiti from New York to Paris
Blek was born Xavier Prou in Paris, 1952 and studied fine art and architecture at Beaux-Arts in Paris, graduating in 1982. Before his graduation, Prou visited New York City and developed a fascination with the city’s street art.
Upon returning to France, he worked with local teens in tenement buildings. When he saw them tagging the abandoned cabins, he decided to adopt graffiti to bring the new art form to Parisian streets.
Prou began using the Blek le Rat pseudonym, derived from an Italian comic called Blek le Roc. The artist had soon painted hundreds of rats around the city using stencils. Rats were an ideal subject because “they create fear, they are synonymous with invasion and they are the only wild animals [apart from] pigeons that live in the city.”
Blek describes his early work as apolitical, explaining that he just wanted a way to stand out and to free himself from the feeling of anonymity caused by living in a major city.
He chose his locations carefully, explaining that one of his goals is to reflect the mood of the places where his art appears. Crucially, he decided to work primarily with black and white to “reproduce the ambiance of the street.”
Blek created most of his stencils by hand to control the level of detail in each piece, although he occasionally started from Xeroxed copies of photographs. He would painstakingly remove all grays in order to create black-and-white stencils. This process gave his work a bold quality that made an instant impression with fellow street artists.
In the mid-1980s, David Hockney, an English artist who created life-sized crayon drawings, inspired Blek to try larger stencils. Blek is now often credited as the inventor of full-scale human character stencils.
Blek worked consistently through the 1990s and 2000s. French police revealed his birth name after arresting him in 1991, and since then, Blek has been arrested or harassed by police in the United States, Argentina and the UK. Still, Blek notes that police are much more lenient in the United States and Britain than in France and admits that he is more famous internationally than in his home country.
The Banksy-Blek le Rat Connection
It is difficult to mention Blek le Rat without mentioning Banksy, the faceless guerrilla art icon who has made a major impact on the mainstream art community with stenciled works of graffiti. Critics and street artists often note the similarities in Blek le Rat and Banksy’s respective styles.
Blek certainly started creating street art before Banksy and is undoubtedly responsible for more major innovations in stenciled graffiti. However, Banksy is more well known for his confrontational style and creative staging, and many newcomers to the world of street art assume that le Rat copies Banksy’s style.
While he has expressed appreciation and admiration for Banksy’s work, Blek does admit that he is somewhat frustrated by the similarities. Some of Banksy’s themes are shockingly similar to le Rat’s, which has led to accusations of outright plagiarism.
This Blek le Rat piece, for instance, preceded the creation of the similar Banksy piece below it.
The 2010 English film “Graffiti Wars” heavily insinuated that Banksy copied Blek directly and contained several quotes from le Rat that seemed to indicate that he agreed with the plagiarism accusations. However, whatever frustrations le Rat has with Banksy are apparently minor.
“I don’t care about Banksy,” Blek said in September of 2011. “People would love me to be concerned but he doesn’t interest me. You should ask Banksy what he thinks about me.”
Banksy has noted the similarities between some of his pieces and Blek’s works, but insists that any recurring themes are completely accidental.
Apart from his big connection with works about Banksy, Blek has influenced numerous artists. As an active member of the street art community, he also helps to promote newer artists’ works, frequently referencing the works of Space Invader, Costa, Jerome Mesnager and other urban artists.
The Rat’s Influence Continues to Spread
Through the 2000s, le Rat continued to paint illegally. He covered walls with depictions of homeless people in a notable project intended to draw attention to the struggle of the homeless population.
Blek is aware of the unfortunate irony of the project; people will walk directly over actual homeless people, but will stop to discuss a painting of a homeless person on a wall.
“Creating a picture and reproducing it all over town attracts people’s attention,” le Rat said in “Getting Through The Walls,” a book he published in 2008, “and encourages them to talk about a subject.”
In recent years, Blek has visited new cities, bringing his inventive art outside of Paris in order to inspire himself to experiment.
“I love to work in places I don’t know because these locations allow me to get in touch with a new atmosphere, new lights, and new people,” le Rat told art website Fecal Face Dot Com. “If I continued to work in Paris I would have the instinct to do the same thing over and over again, without making any progress.”
Blek saw his profile as a mainstream artist rise considerably over the past decade, partially due to Banksy’s popularity in contemporary art circles. In 2006, Blek showed his works in London’s Leonard Street Gallery, and since then, he has regularly presented gallery exhibitions in cities around the world. He celebrated his 30 year anniversary as a street artist at San Francisco’s 941 Geary Gallery in November of 2011. Blek’s gallery works share some characteristics with his street art including heavy use of stencils, but they typically involve a heavier use of color to create an aesthetic more appropriate for the gallery setting.
This is not to suggest that Blek has completely embraced the idea of placing his works in confined gallery spaces. Before an exhibition in Los Angeles in 2008, Blek hit the street, tagging the walls of the city with his instantly identifiable graffiti.
However, despite several exhibitions in 2012 and growing international acclaim, le Rat believes that his days as an artist are close to an end.
“My story is over. I hope to stop creating one day because I’m a little weary,” Blek told Graffitimundo.com. “It’s just a question of money. Artists don’t get retirement plans or pensions.”
Regardless of his motivations, le Rat’s continued contributions the street art genre are remarkable. With innovative materials, his invasive choice of locations and a varied array of character-subjects, Blek demonstrated the artistic legitimacy of graffiti. Paris didn’t listen, unfortunately, but over time, the mainstream art community listened.
He is one of the most influential, important figures in urban art, a passionate provocateur with a fearless heart and an unmatched control of his craft.