Born in 1951, Xavier Prou (better known as Blek Le Rat), was one of the first graffiti artists in Paris, and is the founder of the international stencil art movement.
During a trip to the United States in 1971, Blek was introduced to the ‘wild style’ graffiti prevalent in New York City, which left a lasting impression on him. Inspired by what he saw in New York, Blek began painting the streets of Paris in 1981, choosing a different technique – the stencil – as more appropriate for the French architecture.
Blek’s first stencils were black rats, seen to be running along the walls throughout the centre of Paris. The rat, also an anagram for ‘art’, is in Blek’s mind “the only animal to survive the apocalypse“. In 1983 Blek began to paint life-size stencils, which alongside his rats, have become his trademark and have influenced generations of street artists around the world.
Blek considers his images as gifts to the cities of the world, raising awareness of social issues. His heroes are solitary individuals crossing through the urban space – women, children, the elderly and other contemporary figures in an urban city.
Dedicated to the idea of bringing art to the people, Blek often quotes the old masters like Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Guido Reni and Leonardo da Vinci. “I want the characters of the paintings to walk out of the museums to give them back to the people of the city” he says.
In the mid 2000s, Blek’s work evolved to become more overtly political. Following the kidnapping of French journalist Florence Aubenas in Iraq, Blek pasted hundreds of prints of her image around Paris. Her portrait appeared everywhere, from her work place at Libération, next to cafés and offices of major newspapers. This activation aimed to attract the attention of the media and politicians to raise awareness of her situation.
This body of work was a defining moment for Blek, who says, “I became aware of my power and responsibilty as an artist working in the public space“. That same year, Blek began a series portraying beggars on the street, aiming to shed light on the issue of homelessness. Blek paints the same portrait of a young beggar around the world, from Europe, to the United States to Australia, to challenge authorities, because “sometimes images have a bigger impact than reality“.
THE MANIFESTO OF STENCILISM
It was on a trip to New York City in 1971 that I saw my ﬁrst wild art grafﬁti. They were popping up everywhere: on the subway and around the basketball courts. I remember grafﬁti painted with a marker, like nervous signatures with a crown, allover NY, and big letters ﬁlled with spirals and many colors. These miniatures made me so curious that I asked to Larry Wolhandler, my American friend lodging me in his home in NYC, the inevitable question:
Unfortunately, nobody could give me a proper answer, except that it was the work of people without any reason or sense of responsibility, the “Dusty rabble,” said Lindsay, the former mayor of NYC. In Paris, this kind of expression hadn’t emerged at this time. Of course there were a lot of political slogans in 1968 during the student riots and of course we discussed art in public through the posters produced in the popular workshops of the Ecole des Beaux Arts. But there wasn’t any bigger movement of artists determined to investigate urban architecture. Grafﬁti, this kind of wild art, was born in the US in the mid-sixties when about ten artists, condemned to anonymity, started the ball rolling by writing their assumed names on the walls. I kept all this souvenirs in my mind where they took ten years to
mature, then I started to add my bit. While studying Engraving and Archictecture at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, I got acquainted with the subject. So, in the seventies I learned the art of etching and the techniques of lithography and seriography, while the study of architecture waked my conscience for measurable public space.
At the beginning of the seventies I also was very inﬂuenced by David Hockney who had a big exhibition near the Beaux Art School of Paris. And I can say that he did the most impressive work I’d ever seen in my life. The next year, he made a movie called “The Bigger Splash” and in this movie Hockney is painting with brushes and oil color a large character of one of his friends on a wall of an apartment. This image never quit my mind. I considered that movie so important for art history that I saw it about ten or ﬁfteen times.
In 1980, I helped my friend Gérard Dumas who worked for an Adventureland, a kind of place where teenagers could go just to get to know each other and to keep themselves occupied without having the authorities on their backs. Adventureland was located just behind a supermarket. The kids went back and forth easily. Paint pots were often found under all the gadgets they brought from the supermarket. These illegally exported pots were used to paint the little hangar in which we put our stuff. Big, dripping Frescos appeared and disappeared throughout the year. Gerard and I were moved by each and every creation. And so we decided one day to get hold of some paint sprays, feeling the need for modernism. We’d caught the virus.
The capital belonged to us, and we just had to act. In October 1981 in Paris, rue des Thermopyles, we painted for the ﬁrst time on an old dilapidated house where we wanted to reproduce an American piece. But what a ﬁasco! So I suggested making stencils, an old technique, ancestor of seriography and later used by Italian fascists for their propaganda. I remembered having seen a little efﬁgy of the Duce (Mussolini) with a helm, a relic of the Second World War, in Padova (Italy), when I was there with my parents in the early sixties. Well, once the technique and the material were found, again we just had to act. In Paris, there was enough space and practicing grafﬁti was so unknown that the touring cops hardly ever disturbed us unless they wanted to know what we were doing and if we had a political aim. We answered: “No, this is art,” and the game was won.
We had assumed the name BLEK with reference to the Italian comic strip Blek le Roc that we read in our childhood. A pseudonym had been chosen to get the attention of all people of the quarter: “Who are the authors of theses little rats, the bananas, the running men, and of all the other small stencils we were producing in the day and spraying at night in the14th and 18th Arrondissements of Paris?”
Our nocturnal outings became more and more frequent. On December 31 in 1981 we decided to paint around the Temple consecrated to Modern Art, the Centre Georges Pompidou, so-called Beaubourg. On a very cold night from December 31 to January 1, we sprayed a lot of rats, tanks and little characters at this cult place. The guards of the
museum came out to ask us what we were doing and, once again, we said: “Art,” provoking a fugitive smile on the temple guards’ lips. At the end of the winter the Blek couple separated. Gérard having other things to do, I was alone and took on the name of BLEK LE RAT.
“THE NAME IS THE RELIGION OF GRAFFITI,” says Norman Mailer.
It’s through your name you are recognized and followed, painting is just the way this name tells me: “You exist for thousands of people you don’t know and you’ll never know. But you exist in this closed world of urban anonymity.” I had the power to paint and to avoid all the middlemen who would judge my work with their values. Liberty, if you like.
I was alone in the city and the city was mine. After every night spent painting, I would pass by my walls again and again. Sometimes I would stand there for hours just looking at my stencil grafﬁti and the passersby. Even a passing glance at my painting ﬁlled me with joy. I had to make more and more stencils because, with the way we treat them, they don’t last very long. The dry color forms a crust around the stencil and the cutout parts close up after being sprayed several times. New stencils have to be made, the more you work the better your technique becomes, the
easier it is to work and the better the ﬁnal result becomes. After mastering the technique better and better, in 1983, in March, I had the idea of making a life-sized stencil. In the French newspaper Libération, I found a picture of an old man in a peaked cap. The picture came from Northern Ireland just at the right time for my stencil. This character was to work his way through about ten French cities where I left my mark. He was called BUSTER KEATON, CHARLOT (like Charlie Chaplin), or simply “THE OLD MAN” and he became famous in an unexpected way. What a manna for photographers! Often I stumbled on my old man in newspapers beside articles which had nothing to do with grafﬁti at all. So, as he was a success, a lot of other life-sized stencils followed him.
In the summer of 1984, other stencil grafﬁti appeared in Paris. The ﬁrst I saw came from Marie Rouffet and Surface Active. The dialogue between us had been established, their grafﬁti joining mine, like a private joke, I didn’t mind it and it made me dream of a new art of language through these signs we had in common. While Paris began to bloom with new stencil grafﬁti, malicious criminal proceedings began to stretch out their feelers. The cops became more and more aggressive, and I was ﬁrst arrested in Les Halles. First remand, ﬁrst police report, ﬁrst interrogation by an inspector who, being a comic fan, didn’t take it any further. The affair was dropped….
But, since the end of 1984, the fear of being arrested has never left me. I began to study the cops’ attitudes, I learned to anticipate their rounds, I learned to ﬁnd out about their holidays and patrols and to adapt my work to all these parameters. I learned to hide my material under cars; I taught my friends how to watch the streets I wanted to
investigate. Well, I had to take a lot of precautions for my work, which became more and more difﬁcult to do. This wasn’t much fun, but my desire to express myself and to paint was so strong that the tension produced by this endless hide-and-seek turned into a shower of creativity at just the right moment. There’s nothing more exciting than working with frozen hands in the middle of a winter’s night, when your heart is beating hard with fear.
I felt, and still feel, close to all my stencils; for example, Tom Waits, a young boy in shorts, Andy Warhol, Marcel Dassault (with a stick), a women with a child, the Russian soldier I painted at the entrances of the Parisian highways, President Mitterrand, a fawn, the German artist Joseph Beuys, a running man crying, Jesus Christ, two dogs mating, or a woman in garters I sprayed on the French singer Serge Gainsbourg’s house and at other well-chosen places in Paris. More than forty different characters, my characters, all like me in some way, they are introducing me to the world like someone would introduce themselves to another person. Whenever I painted them on walls, I felt like I was leaving a part of myself there, on the walls of all the cities around the world I went to. I never stopped being anxious until the day my fear was justiﬁed by a short stay in the Tribunal de Grande Instance (Criminal Division) of Paris for having committed a “Damage to other people’s property.” Once again, I was lucky to meet a good-natured judge who liked my work. Looking at the picture my lawyer gave him, he said to me: “I can’t condemn it, it’s too beautiful.”
The grafﬁti movement has no other intention than to speak via pictures. Words for the community, words of love, words of hatred, of life and death. It’s just a ﬁne and subtle kind of therapy and an attempt to ﬁll the emptiness of this terrible world, to cover public space with pictures that people going to work can enjoy. But the authorities were not sympathetic to our cause and declared war on grafﬁti. They invented a lot of laws and waged war until every little stencil grafﬁti or art expression had been stripped of its soul. Young artists were threatened with punishments and ﬁnes completely out of proportion to the act. As if grafﬁti were more dangerous than drugs. But the immense desire to paint and to express themselves encourages artists to support one another. Doing it all around the world, they made
this urban art into the biggest art movement of the 20th century; just look at the spread of their pictures and the authenticity they radiate. There is no place in the world with no mural artistic traces. Even in Peking, under the
strongest regime, there is a man leaving his mark right at this moment. However, urban art is still seen as a spreading blemish on the urban face. Personally, I think the colors of our sprays help the urban landscape to bloom with poetic intentions.