Blek Le Rat (born Xavier Prou) has been painting on walls longer than most reading this article have been alive. He’s influenced generations of graffiti writers, street/urban artists, and vandals all around the world. He studied fine art and architecture at Beaux-Arts in Paris, but the the confines of a studio or classroom couldn’t contain him. He’s the unquestioned original stencil pioneer, his early works paving the way for so many who have come since.
Blek started painting stencils of rats on the walls of Paris in 1981 and has been bringing his art “to the people” ever since. His stenciled works have covered many themes from the beauty of a young couple dancing, the plight of the homeless, and of course the rat. Oh, so many rats. Blek’s travels have taken him now to Chicago, where he will work outdoors on walls and open an ambitious gallery show. His first ever solo show in Chicago, “Ratical”, opens at Vertical Gallery on April 1st at 6p. “Ratical” includes works on canvas, wood, paper, and even a bronze sculpture.
Our own @jreich sat down with Blek to discuss his past, his current, and his future as well as his thoughts on street vs galleries and which of his peers he keeps tabs on.
Blek Le Rat: Yes I do
@jreich: You’ve said that you first saw graffiti in New York City in the early 70s. What do you remember about that experience and beginning to write on walls back home in France?
Blek Le Rat: Yes it was during summer 1972 and I was invited by an American friend of mine that I met at the beaux arts in Paris. We were students at that time and Larry Wolhandler was from Utica NY. He had some cousins living in NYC and we stayed with them in an apartment in Manhathan . I remember having seen graffiti in the subway and some pieces painted on the walls in Greenwich village . I remember that i asked asked Larry why people were leaving these signatures and what it meant for him .Larry told me that he did not know why people were doing this. He thought that these people were crazy. I remember coming across an article in the NYT by Norman Mailer about this movement in NY and Taki 183. The article gave me the answers to my questions. It took me 10 years to start to make graffiti in Paris. 1981 was the year when I started.
@jreich: I love the story of how your name “Blek Le Rat” came to be, would you share it with our readers?
Blek Le Rat: When I was a kid in the 50’s we had a comic book called “Blek le roc ” . Blek was a American trapper fighting against the British army . I was a big fan of the book during my youth . The comic still exists but not famous as it was in the 50’s . I took the name of Blek in reference to the comic book and I changed “le roc” in “le rat” because I was painting rats everywhere in paris . I liked rats and it is the anagram of art which fitted perfectly with my practice .
@jreich: The Man Who Walks Through Walls, His Masters Voiceless, The Beggar, Space Cowboy, Computer Man. You have so many signature images. Yet, The Rat continues to be such a huge part of your persona and career. Your show at Vertical Gallery is even titled “Ratical”! How do you feel about the creature after all these years? Could you ever stop painting rats?
Blek Le Rat: It is strange now because 35 years ago people were scared of rats and had an aversion for rats. I remember people asking me the question “Why Rats?”. We hate rats, you should paint different animals like birds or dogs. The attitude of people is really different today with the rats , I assume they love rats now and they ask me to develop the concept of the life of rats in the cities. It is funny this little wild animal becomes more familiar with people and acceptable .
@jreich:Your have worked all over the world, but this is your first time working and having a solo show in Chicago. What do you know of the city and your expectations for your time here?
Blek Le Rat: I stayed in 1975 in Joliet for a week that’s all I know from the city ! I expect to paint some walls and leave my trace in the city. You know I have loved the USA for a long time now and to me it is like a consecration to show my work in your country. I am very proud of that.
@jreich: How important is it to continue to work in the streets as you’re also showing work in gallery settings all around the world? Could you ever foresee yourself “retiring” from painting walls and only work in galleries?
Blek Le Rat: I don’t want to paint illegally anymore because and I don’t want to have problems with the police anymore for graffiti. If i had the opportunity to paint legally in every city of the world I will make it without any problem. Street art is made for the people who don’t have an access to art in galleries or museums. I have always wanted to touch these people. I also like galleries because it is the place where we can find art in a different way than in the streets but I think it is important to show my work also in galleries because this art is ephemeral and doesn’t stay in the street forever so it is very important to keep a trace and a memory of this art.
@jreich You have obviously gained so much respect from other well-known street artists from Shepard Fairey to Banksy. Are there any current working street artists whose works you follow and look forward to seeing?
Blek Le Rat: I love Shepard Fairey. I remember having seen his work at the end of 90’s beginning of 2000s and I knew immediately that this was a great artist because he had already found his style and was different than the others. He is the most modern artist of this generation . He found a new concept in art and style of representation . I think there is only one or two artists like him in every generation . Warhol was one of them in his generation of the 60’s Shepard is one of them in his time. I love British artists as well they are very creative and free in their way to express their ideas. I love Slinkachu. Ben Eine is really great. Pure Evil and of course Banksy is really amazing! I love artists who build something in their art and hate those who destroy.
@jreich: When you first started creating works on walls did you ever imagine doing it all over the world, and then selling your works?
Blek Le Rat: Yes I did , I remember to be sure in 1981 that graffiti was the future of art and would be accepted by the people as an art in its own right. I did not know that it would take so long though.
@jreich: Your career is like no other in the graffiti/street art world. Do you think about “retiring” from street art, or do you see yourself maintaining this output for many years to come?
Blek Le Rat: No , there is no retirement for artists. I gave the half of my life to this art and I will continue until the end…
A big thank you to Blek for talking with us, and to Vertical Gallery for bringing Blek Le Rat to Chicago for his debut solo show. See you on April 1st!
For more on Blek Le Rat follow him on Instagram @blekleratoriginal
For more on Vertical Gallery at “Ratical” follow them @verticalgallery