Blek Le Rat: A Collector’s Guide
Five things to know about Blek le Rat, a French graffiti artist and “father of stencil” who built the French graffiti scene from the ground up.
Works featured on offer at West Chelsea Contemporary.
“Forget Banksy: Meet Blek Le Rat, The Father Of Stencil Graffiti”-Forbes Magazine
Blek le Rat is a French graffiti artist and the first artist to ever use stencil for graffiti. He uses stencils and spray paint to create outspoken wall paintings in hopes of making positive impacts in the community. With a prosperous career spanning over 40 years and large body of distinguishable work, his graffiti style and social commentary has had a major influence on artists around the world, including the anonymous Banksy.
Read on below to discover five things every art collector should know about Blek le Rat.
- Blek le Rat can account for a number of exact moments that have brought him to lead the French graffiti movement. Most regarded as being a pivotal moment for Blek was his trip to New York in 1971, which exposed him to the “wild style” graffiti scene. This American graffiti inspired the artist to bring graffiti to Paris, where at the time there was a dismal–if not nonexistent–amount of creative urban works. After his trip to New York, he enrolled at Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Paris to study etching, serigraphy and lithography. He then went on to study architecture to learn creative and impactful placement of urban art in anticipation of his graffiti. Parisian graffiti lingered in the artist’s mind for around a decade until it was rekindled in the early 80s after witnessing teens graffitiing the walls of a free space he worked in. Saying to his friend (who was also encountering the teens’ amateur graffiti work), “we’re going to do the exact same thing around the walls of Paris,” and began painting the city streets in 1981. Predating his trip to New York, Blek also recalls as a child finding the fascists propaganda of Italy beautiful.
- Rats have been thematic in Blek’s work from the beginning of his career. Born Xavier Prou, Blek created the name Blek le Rat, rooting from Italian comic book Blek le Roc. He uses rat as an anagram for “art” and also uses them to represent the urban environment, the marginalized members of society, and the freedom and dissemination of art through the city. Rats are “the only animal to survive the apocalypse,” says Blek. Initially using small rats as his first stencils and painting them along the walls of Paris, his body of work has later placed his rats in many different settings for varying social statements. Motivated to expand his oeuvre, he began working with bigger stencils after witnessing the large scale works of David Hockney and Richard Hambleton.
- Blek le Rat recognizes the power he holds in his graffiti art, saying “I became aware of my power and responsibility as an artist working in the public space…sometimes images have a bigger impact than reality.” He sees graffiti as an infinite art form and enabler of collective expression. Regardless of its ephemeral nature, graffiti, to Blek, leaves an important and lasting mark. The artist never intended on profiting off his work, and created art to simply create for the sake of the people and the cities of the world. He considers the best part of painting graffiti to be the public’s positive reactions when first seeing his work. Representing people without a voice, Blek has used his platform as an artist to raise awareness. He passed hundreds of prints of French journalist Florence Aubenas’s image around Paris after her abduction in Iraq. This subsequently prompted the necessity of her situation to powerful figures and politicians. It was a turning point for Blek; he realized his power and duty as an artist of the people. His ingenious use of stencil and his work’s witty approach in addressing topics of religion, the economy, the military, and art history have inspired artists like Swoon, Logan Hicks, and Banksy, who was particularly touched by Blek’s rats.
“Every time I think I’ve painted something slightly original, I find out that Blek Le Rat has done it as well, only twenty years earlier.”-Banksy
- He has discontent for his home city of Paris saying, “I don’t like that city,” when referring to it in an interview. France still views graffiti art as vandalism and values art as higher in galleries and museums, where most of the country’s art resides. Blek feels that he is much better known internationally than within France. Seeing France as unprosperous in graffiti innovation with slow developments in new movements, the artist says they are lacking in imagination and creativity. Although he continues to paint illegally, he avoids Paris as a location for creating.
- The artist has encountered a few run ins with the law that have impacted how he has approached painting graffiti. In 1991, Blek was arrested in New York for painting in the street. In preparation to avoid being caught and arrested in the future, he started pasting up posters that could travel around the world. His most famous and well-travelled poster is The Man Who Walks Through Walls, a figure constructed of Blek’s self portrait on the body of Buster Keaton, Blek’s favorite actor, carrying suitcases. Blek was also arrested in Palermo, Italy, where the members of the area were not pleased with Blek’s graffiti. He describes his time under arrest as a horrible experience where the police didn’t believe he couldn’t speak spanish. He ended up spending an entire day in jail. Blek expresses that working in the streets makes him paranoid and anxious, even when painting with permission.
What’s on now at WCC:
West Chelsea Contemporary’s nearly 8,000 square-foot gallery offers the opportunity to highlight work on a monumental scale. From 16-foot originals by RETNA and Cey Adams to colossal sculptural work—including a larger than life mixed media shark and painted aluminum spaceman—the gallery is activated by art world giant’s not only in a metaphorical sense.
By contemplating ground-breaking movements from the past six decades, Icons & Vandals allows viewers to rediscover and redefine the art world’s most iconic and contentious house-hold names. These artists have left their mark on the development and progression of contemporary art by subverting the norms of their own time. Through this show it becomes clear that these two labels are not mutually exclusive but in fact ingrained in their interconnectedness.
Works from ICONS & VANDALS will be on display and for sale at West Chelsea Contemporary in beginning May 15.
Reach out today to inquire or acquire.