Matthew Eller: I am currently at the beautiful West Chelsea Contemporary Gallery in NYC speaking with the living legend Blek le Rat. Blek currently has a Solo show on exhibition here and its a must see! So let’s get started with the basics. For those who are not familiar with your work why don’t you tell them a bit about yourself?
Blek le Rat: My name is Blek Le Rat. I started to make graffiti in 1981 in Paris. When I was 20 years in 1972 I took a trip to New York City, and thats where I first discovered graffiti. At that time Taki 183 and everything was only in New York.
Matthew Eller: So let me stop you quick, were you a graffiti fan at this point in your life? Did you come to New York to find graffiti or was it just a happy accident?
Blek le Rat: At that time I was a student of architecture in Paris. It’s was a happy accident because in Europe at that time in 1972 it was impossible to find graffiti. You know, we had some political graffiti, but nothing compared to the United States. So, when I saw the first graffiti in the subway in 1972, or outside in the street, I would say to my friend, Larry, “Why does this happen here? Why are people doing this? What does it mean?” You know, because it was all so new, this visual of people writing their name, it was impossible to have this concept in Europe. So it took me 10 years to realize my first taste. But for 10 years I digested what I saw in New York, I always remember what I had seen in New York on this trip. But unfortunately I don’t have any pictures, but it’s permanently ingrained in my memory.
Matthew Eller: Have you tried to repaint it from memory? See how close you could get it?
Blek le Rat: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was a really incredible thing to witness, you know? That would be a magnificent challenge.
Matthew Eller: So you came to New York just for vacation or…?
Blek le Rat: Yes, on vacation. Larry and I were student at a fine arts school in Paris. I was an artist and Larry told me “You must come to the United States because you’re gonna have a big surprise when you come”. And it’s true. I had a big surprise!
Matthew Eller: A huge eye opener?
Blek le Rat: <Laughing> Yeah. You can imagine New York in 1972. Music is everywhere. People dancing in the streets. It was very hip times, you Know?
Matthew Eller: I mean, there was no rules back then, right? <Laugh>.
Blek le Rat: No rules, it was free. We felt completely clear, like in the freeist country. So compared to Europe, it was a big new thing for me.
Matthew Eller: So how long were you in NYC?
Blek le Rat: I spent three months here!
Matthew Eller: Oh! Three months! So you were here for a bit! It wasn’t just a long week at the Holiday Inn in Times Square!
Blek le Rat: Months. Actually, I went to Utica. Larry is from Utica. Okay. First trip to the United States, we spent some time with his parents in Utica, and after that I went to Jacksonville, Florida as well.
Matthew Eller: I bet there was no graffiti in Florida bet back then?
Blek le Rat: No, no, not graffiti. You could find graffiti in New York everywhere, even in Utica! But no graffiti, nothing in Jacksonville.
Matthew Eller: <Laughing> Well, New York City still is the number one for street art! So you visit New York in 1972, you get engulfed in this strange wall writing most people think is garbage, and it becomes all you can think about?
Blek le Rat: Absolutely! Yeah! I remember saying to Larry “Which people are doing this?”, and Larry would say to me “I don’t know, some crazy people!”
Matthew Eller: So what was the thing that clicked in your brain that made you say, “I have to see this more. I have to be part of this”?
Blek le Rat: When I saw the graffiti in New York, I knew that something was happening here, something very important, a kind of turning point in art. But the people were not making “art”. Someone like Taki 183 was not making what was considered “art” at this time. This fact helped me realize that to show something in the street was completely different to present it in a gallery. How would you find people to buy your work? It was a completely different concept. And I understood that very early in 1972. I remember telling myself something is happening here in art. And it would have been great to show works on the streets at that time… but it took me 10 years because you know, it was illegal.
Matthew Eller: So this first trip in 1972 you were just an art student enjoying a foreign land who happen to stumble on to something you knew was very special… but not sure why… and after 3 months you returned back to Paris?
Blek le Rat: Exactly, I came back to Paris. My only dream when I returned was to get back to New York. So I came back a year later in 1973, and then two years later in 1974, and one year later in 1975 the same thing. I was aware that something was happening there and I had to be part of it.
Matthew Eller: And and you came back on all these trips mainly for the street art?
Blek le Rat: No, just for visiting. At this time I was traveling all over. I wanted to discover the United States. So I traveled from New York to San Francisco. I hitchhiked across the USA And met a lot of people, very nice people, and never had any problems.
Matthew Eller: So your hitchhiking across the country. Was there more graffiti anywhere else along the way? Or was it just like a New York thing at this point?
Blek le Rat: I remember seeing some graffiti in LA, But nothing like the volume in New York City.
Matthew Eller: So skipping ahead a bit, what finally gave you the courage to pick up a spray can and hit the streets?
Blek le Rat: <Laughs> You are right saying the “courage” because it’s very difficult to make graffiti. It’s not easy! It’s something that takes a lot of strength, it looks easy to make graffiti but It’s not. It’s very difficult. So the first time I did a piece in public I tried to imitate an American graffiti artist’s piece. I remember exactly where it was. It was in the park at night. I was with a friend of mine and I couldn’t do it correctly, It looked nothing like the American piece I tried to imitate… I didn’t have the skill yet.
Matthew Eller: Were you wearing the whole black outfit with a hood and all that stuff?
Blek le Rat: No, we didn’t have any hoods. But, I distinctly remember it was during the winter of 1981 because it was very cold outside. But I didn’t have the skill yet so I returned back to my studio and I thought about what I can do to make, or prepare something in my studio for use in the street. So I remember that I saw some stencils done during the world War II in Italy. They were using stencils to post propaganda. I am a sponge, I take from what I see, from what I feel, from what I like, and I appropriate these things. I didn’t invent the stencil, but I did appropriate it to make street art.
Matthew Eller: What was the first stencil?
Blek le Rat: It was red. It was a rat.
Matthew Eller: So it’s been rats literally from the beginning?
Blek le Rat: Yeah, absolutely!
Matthew Eller: For those who do not know can you want to give a quick explanation of why rats? From what I understand partly it comes from the fact that “ART” and “RAT” share the same letters?
Blek le Rat: Yea! Rat is anagram of art! I thought this coincidence was really appropriate. And and also Paris is full of rats.
Matthew Eller: <Laughing> So it’s New York!
Blek le Rat: New York? I have not see any rats in New York yet.
Matthew Eller: Seriously? After all these trips never one rat? We can take a walk later in the Lower East Side i’m sure we can spot a few!
Blek le Rat: You have a lot here in NYC?
Matthew Eller: Tons of rats… We even have rats that eat pizza in the subway!
Blek le Rat: I’ve heard that there are more rats in Paris than people living in the city.
Matthew Eller: I bet the same is true in New York City as well! <Laughing> So one day you were like lets try a rats and that was it… one and done!
Blek le Rat: Exactly, it just seemed fitting at the time. I covered the city of Paris with rats for two years, every night, almost every night. Small stencils in black pain on sidewalks. I was putting them everywhere to say to the French people, “Oh, you living in a big beautiful city? But you must know that underground it’s full of rats. Right?”
Matthew Eller: So you’re just starting to do this new stencil graffiti thing in Paris at night anonymously. Were people catching onto it early on ? Did it take a while? There’s no internet, there’s no Instagram. How did people find out about them? How did it get back to you initially?
Blek le Rat: Yes, of course. So the first people started to notice after a few months, but about one year after I started painting a feature appeared in the newspaper saying “We are looking for this guy who paints rats in Paris”. So I answered the article.
Matthew Eller: Do you still have a copy of the article?
Blek le Rat: Yes. Yes. Of course!
Matthew Eller: You have to send me a photo of it. I’d love to see it! Was it a paper with a large circulation?
Blek le Rat: Very much so, like equivalent to The New York Times or something similar. It was a very important newspaper.
Matthew Eller: Oh so this was a big thing?
Blek le Rat: Yes! A big spectacle! They called it “The school of Blek Le Rat”.
Matthew Eller: So they named you?
Blek le Rat: Yeah. They named me “The school of Blek Le Rat”. I still have the newspaper of course because it was something life changing. I was so proud, but I couldn’t tell anyone because it was illegal.
Matthew Eller: OK, So this is fun now. You have this article about these stencil pieces that you’ve been putting all over Paris in the early eighties. So what do you do with them now? Do you try to sell them? Paint more?
Blek le Rat: No it didn’t happen like that. In 1983 Richard Hambleton (shadowman) came to France and he left large beautiful characters in Paris. Huge splashes with tons of expression. After seeing this I decided to make large more expansive works. Before this I was only making small stencils, some faces, some people, some small things, you know, all in one color, one layer. But when I saw this work I realized that in the streets you must make things huge to be seen by people.
Matthew Eller: That’s cool. So you decided to up your game. Did you start with your infamous “Man who walks through walls” image?
Blek le Rat: No, no, no. It was an Irish guy. I took the photo from a newspaper in France. He was an old man screaming at some British soldiers. The British soldier was aiming a gun at somebody and the old man with glasses was screaming insults at the soldier. I found this image to be very strong. So I took the image of the old man and made a stencil so it would be easy to do on the street. I also with some friends put this man up in many different cities all over Europe.
Matthew Eller: But at this point this is all still all outta of your pocket, right. No one is paying to do any of this yet?
Blek le Rat: I was a full time technology Teacher at this time.
Matthew Eller: Okay… Technology… interesting… You’re using the most non-technological way to do art possible. Right. Just cutting a hole in something and painting through it. The caveman probably did something similar right? So when does this start to turn into something that looks less like a hobby and more like a career?
Blek le Rat: I would say 1986, I had my first show in a gallery. A French woman named Agnes B., Who now has stores all over including New York. She had a gallery, and she asked me to make a show for her gallery. It was in 1986. And I said, “Okay. Yes, no problem!” And that was my first show. But we didn’t sell anything!
Matthew Eller: Oh, that’s funny. What were they going for? Did they not sell because they were crazy expensive? Do you remember what they cost back then?
Blek le Rat: Oh, a large canvas was something like $300 to $500 American Dollars. Today’s that is probably like $1200 or about one month rent in Paris at the time. I was making about $1000 a month as a teacher to put it in perspective.
Matthew Eller: So you do this show at Agnes B.and then you’re in some more shows. When was it when it became a big thing?, When did people start to recognize what you were doing and acknowledge your pioneering influence?
Blek le Rat: Well, when you bring something new to the people, it takes a long time for people to digest it, and to appreciate it. So it took about 50 years actually!
Matthew Eller: You didn’t really make a living off of art for a long time. Until very recently really?
Blek le Rat: Yeah, absolutely. It start to work very well in 2006 when I was 55 years old.
Matthew Eller: But here we are in West Chelsea Contemporary in New York City at your very own solo show! WCC’s first solo artist show in NYC actually! Also, one of their first shows since COVID. Did you spend the majority of COVID painting in your home studio?
Blek le Rat: Yeah. It’s very important for artist to be isolated. When you are surrounding by people, it’s not good, <laughing> they take your time, your passions, and your money.
Matthew Eller: You work best in isolation is what you’re saying?
Blek le Rat: Yes! But, I start to work for the show in January of this year. I worked every day, 10 hours a day. There are over 25 large pieces alone both here in NYC and at WCC’s Austin Gallery.
Matthew Eller: So is there a theme to these shows?
Blek le Rat: I want to make a tribute to Richard (Hambleton). He was so important in my life. I never met him actually, but I followed his life. I followed what he was doing since the beginning. He was so important in my life. He deserves it. He deserves to be to be the most important street artist ever, in my opinion.
Matthew Eller: So this show is really for Richard?
Blek le Rat: In my heart… yes… Maybe not for the people in the gallery, but in my heart, it’s real, it’s a present that I make for Richard.
Matthew Eller: So the way Richard was to you, you were to countless newer artists. Who have come out as saying how influential you were to them. Obviously I have to ask about Banksy because he took his rats from you. Have others said to you “your stencils are what made me want to be an artist”? And how do you feel about all these artists that use you as their source material? Is it an honor? Or something that frustrates you?
Blek le Rat: No. No, it’s an honor. It’s really an honor. I’m very happy. I would say that at the beginning I was not very happy, but now I realize that when the young people use a stencil to make graffiti it’s a tribute to me sometimes in some way, and I really like it now. I have no problem. And I really, especially love Banksy because he brought something new to the Streets. I don’t like when people try to imitate exactly the stencil works of Banksy. Many people, they copy the little girl with the balloon on the streets. And I don’t really like that.
Matthew Eller: There is a very fine line between copying and inspiration? It’s like a Bootleg versus a reproduction.
Blek le Rat: Yes, we can be inspired by many people. If you don’t try to copy their exact style and their exact state of mind it can result in great inspiration. It’s not, if you are influenced, we are all the result of so many influences in life. So I think that we are all born artist. Everybody is an artist. Everyone is an artist in some way and we all had teachers who inspired and influenced us.
Matthew Eller: How could anybody ever predict that this technology teacher guy from France comes to New York sees this strange writing on street walls which is a bi-product of a very young hip-hop culture, then becomes obsessed and takes it to France where out of necessity he adapts it’s delivery system which he appropriated from propaganda paintings he saw in Italy during WWII, which then permeates throughout the world, and eventually coming back to America becoming a staple in the hip-hop culture that kinda created it.
Blek le Rat: Absolutely! Like it’s really weird. It’s kind of mind blowing to me. I’m aware of that. I’m really aware of that. And absolutely. It’s… it’s very bizarre. truly bizarre. Life is very bizarre. And street arts story is a very bizarre one. How it works, and how things are combined together, It is something special! I could have never imagined this would be my reality.
Matthew Eller: For instance, I am currently wearing a collaboration sneaker between Nike & Kaws. Maybe these would not exist if you never cut that first stencil? You kinda changed the world… the art world at a minimum…
Blek le Rat: I don’t know about all that, but the journey has all been very strange and wonderful.
Matthew Eller: Let’s shift gears and talk about your creative process. I want you to tell me about your favorite music, or any other rituals you observe while working in your studio?
Blek le Rat: I need music, I need music or radio.
Matthew Eller: What do you prefer to listen to while you’re working? Any particular genre?
Blek le Rat: I lOVE Mac Miller!
Matthew Eller: Sorry. Mac Miller the rapper?
Blek le Rat: Oh, yes! Mac Miller is my favorite!
Matthew Eller: What? I did not expect that at all. I was expecting something like Serge Gainsbourg or Miles Davis!
Blek le Rat: Actually, preparing for this show I was mostly listening to Mac Miller. Yeah! Mac Miller is incredible! He is the best! I know two albums of his very well, especially his last one. Okay, I listen to the albums on repeat, and I discover different thing each time, you know? I LOVE Mac Miller!
Matthew Eller: How did you discover him?
Blek le Rat: Actually my son introduced me to him. He told me “You have to listen Mike Miller!”, and I really had with with him what i had with Richard (Hambleton). I had a big shock when I listen to his music. I can’t listen to rock music anymore I’m finished! I loved rock music when I was young, but I only listen hiphop music now!
Matthew Eller: I bet Mac Miller was influenced by your work at some point wether directly or inadvertently, I’m sure somebody out there knows if he was a big fan of street art in general or Banksy, or Invader, etc., so in a roundabout way, it’s kind of crazy that you may have had a positive effect on his life and art.
Blek le Rat: That is great. He is number one! I will think about this for or a long time..it’s insane. I think I didn’t have a shock like that for maybe 40 years since the end of eighties when i discovered Public Enemy. I really liked them of course. But after Public Enemy, I didn’t have a big shock like that until Mac Miller. Miller is a real musician. You know, he’s plays guitar and everything. He plays piano as well, he’s a real musician and you can feel it in this music.
Matthew Eller: So your process is to put on hip hop and experiment in your studio I guess? What about art? Is there any artists new or old other than Richard Hambleton who inspire you?
Blek le Rat: Yeah. So I like Shepard Fairey and of course my good friend Dan Witz!
Matthew Eller: Both are the nicest guys in the world!
Blek le Rat: Yes! I have four or five of his pieces… and I really like this British artist Slinkachu. He makes these incredible very small works of art. He’s a very interesting artist. He’s working with a very good gallery in London. And he’s just very good. Everyone should check him out.
Matthew Eller: Definitely! So actual last question and then I’ll let you get back to preparing for your show. I always ask are there any funny or interesting stories about getting arrested or any story that you may have not told that people would be interested in hearing about being out on the streets painting?
Blek le Rat: Yes, many stories! So the last time I was arrested was in Argentina, in Buenos Aries in 2003. It was about five o’clock in the morning. I was painting in a very popular area. I was just stenciling graffiti on the front of the police station. I was tired. And I was taking too long to spray and the cops saw me and came to ask me “What you are doing here?” In Spanish. And I said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t speak any Spanish” in my thick French accent <laughing>. And he told me, “I am sure you know what I’m saying, and even if it’s legal in France to paint like this, it’s absolutely illegal to do that here. So come with me”. And so I had to go to the police station and spend five hours explaining what I was doing.
Matthew Eller: So what was your punishment?
Blek le Rat: Oh! Eventually he told me, <Laughing> “Okay, get away from here! I don’t wanna hear any more! I don’t want to hear from you!”
Matthew Eller: So you got off easy! Did you finish the piece?
Blek le Rat: No, no, I did not! <laughing>
Well maybe one day we can go back there and you can finish it while I take photos! Anyway, thank you so much for your time, Xavier. It’s truly an honor to have the opportunity to photograph and speak with you. Everyone Check out Blek’s work at WCC and listen to Mac Miller while you view it!
All Photo’s & Text Copyright 2022 Matthew A. Eller. Follow me on Instagram @elleresqphoto