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FineArtViews Interview: Blek le Rat (Xavier Prou) -- Originator of Stencil Graffiti Art, Living Legend of the Street Art / Graffiti Art Scene

by Brian Sherwin on 8/10/2011 1:52:43 AM

This article is by Brian Sherwin, regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. Brian Sherwin is an art critic, blogger, curator, artist and writer based near Chicago, Illinois. He has been published in Hi Fructose Magazine, Illinois Times, and other publications, and linked to by publications such as The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, Juxtapoz Magazine, Deutsche Bank ArtMag, ARTLURKER, Myartspace, Blabbermouth, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Modern Art Obsession, Citizen LA, Shark Forum, Two Coats of Paint and Art Fag City. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.

Blek le Rat "No Comment", Strasbourg 1987


Blek le Rat (Xavier Prou) has been described in many ways... some call him "the man who gave birth to Banksy.", others -- "the grandfather of street art". Most within the global street art community fondly address Blek as the "original stencil pioneer", "The old man of street art", or the "modern street art messiah". In fact, it often seems that street artists rising in popularity look to Blek for a nod of approval... like a son or daughter who desires his/her father to be proud.


Those in the know are quick to note the influence Blek has had on a younger generation of street artists -- such as Shepard Fairey -- who arguably would have never gained momentum within mainstream culture had it not been for Blek trailblazing a path a decade or more before. In many ways Blek changed the course of street art history -- and art history for that matter.


In the early 1980s Blek cut a stencil of a rat silhouette and sprayed it throughout Paris for over a year. Word spread of the work from Paris to other larger cities throughout the world -- New York, London... an international exchange of art and ideas prior to the World Wide Web. From that point on stencils -- with a focus on detailed works of street art-- became a common tool among street/graffiti artists. History was made -- street art was forever changed.


Blek le Rat's unique style revolutionized what street art and graffiti art could be -- and the meaning it could have for those who observe it. His impact is clear. For example, the mysterious London-based street artist known as Bansky claims, "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...".


With all the buzz of the MOCA exhibit "Art in the Streets" -- and the increase in street art interest that has occurred in the United States since Shepard Fairey's support of Barack Obama during his 2008 campaign for presidency -- I felt it was important to contact an artist who truly spearheaded innovation in street art long before these events. I desired to take a look at the roots of street art and graffiti art as we know it today.


I have a lot of questions about how easily certain street artists are called 'trailblazers' by the media while those who pioneered the direction of the art form often take the back-burner -- due to the failures of uninformed journalists and opportunistic publicists. I can't help but question everything -- and I personally want to see the history of street art preserved beyond recent hype. In other words, I'm not interested in fairy tales -- I'm interested in real history.


I honestly did not think that Blek le Rat would agree to an interview with me. What I discovered is a humble giant who is more than happy to discuss a form of art that he loves... a man -- though a living legend -- who is willing to take the time in order to spread that love to others. Special thanks goes to Sybille Prou -- who was instrumental in setting up this interview.


Brian Sherwin: Blek, you are a pioneer of stencil graffiti art and one of the first contemporary graffiti artists to create work in Paris. Your influence on graffiti art-- and street art in general-- is clear to anyone who has minimal knowledge of its recent history. In fact, you are considered to be the inventor of the life-sized stencil-- and have been credited as the first graffiti artist to transform the use of stencils from basic lettering to pictorial art. With that in mind-- can you give a brief history of what attracted you to graffiti art-- specifically the use of stencils?


Blek le Rat: I have been interested in graffiti forever more or less consciously. I became aware of the phenomenon on a trip to NYC in 1972 when I saw tags and pieces in the NY subway. I was very impressed but it took me 10 years to act myself. In the meantime I had studied fine arts and architecture while always talking about the graffiti I had seen in NYC but it didn't go any further. In 1981 I felt the need to get out of the anonymity created by the life in the city and stenciling was an extraordinary means to show to my contemporaries that I existed.


From my first graffiti on I knew this would create a buzz and engender reactions from the audience (the passers-by). I had to wait a couple of months though... I simply used stencils because I didn't know how to make wildstyle graffiti like the ones I had seen in NYC. It was important to me to leave a clean, clear and comprehensible message / image on the walls. If I had merely copied the American style it would have been a disaster.


Sherwin: The very nature of graffiti art-- and street art in general-- is one that carries a certain level of risk. In a sense, a street artist places himself or herself at risk each and every time he or she takes to the streets in order to create works. Has that risk-- the chance of being harmed or, depending on the situation, arrested-- ever held you back from ideas that you have wanted to explore with your work? Or would you say that part of your process when creating on the streets is to block the knowledge of potential risk from your thoughts?


Blek: This risk has held me back indeed. If working in the streets weren't that "dangerous" I would have worked ten times more in the urban landscape. I was never able to forget about the risk, it is rather paralyzing but it is my choice to work this way so I have to go with it. But it has been a constant fight and I never "enjoyed" the risk.


Sherwin: Your work has long focused on exploring social themes-- such as revealing the global problem of homelessness as you see it-- and simply the enjoyment of introducing the public to art. In that sense, one could say that you create art to both cultivate art appreciation within the public domain and to 'wake' the public up to the realities of others who are struggling. You have been described as a visual activist for both. With that in mind, do you have any thoughts concerning the concept of 'street artist as educator and activist'? Do you view yourself as a teacher-- or simply a man with a deep desire to express your opinions to others visually?


Blek: Creating in the public space has a big impact on people. In my opinion it is more interesting to convey a social message than talking about your personal fantasies, there is no interest of talking about "yourself" exclusively... apart if you are a genius, but there isn't one in the street art scene. I rather consider myself someone who depicts what he's seen, heard etc. I try to choose topics I think will appeal to the others.


I never want to direct other people's thoughts. I would never give implicit orders such as "fuck the police" or "fuck society". It is important that people have their own "story" with my images through their own imagination.


Sherwin: Your artwork has obviously influenced street artists such as Shepard Fairey and Banksy. The media often portrays Fairey and Banksy as the "trailblazers" of street art. In other words, it often appears that the history of graffiti art-- and street art in general-- is bypassed for what is trending today. Having focused decades to this direction of art are you ever concerned that the real history will somehow be clouded by the contemporary hype published by uninformed journalist or opportunistic publicist? After all, in the wider history of street art Fairey, Banksy and others are not exactly the trailblazers and innovators that they have been promoted as being by the media.


Blek: First thing... I think history is history and can't be re-written. I am sure that it is difficult to exist alongside these two artists who know how to promote themselves. In thirty years I have often seen such phenomenons and I know how to take it. For thirty years I have seen journalists who consider street art an ephemeral phenomenon that will only exist for a couple of months. Today, 30 years after having started people still ask about the evolution of street art...


Fortunately, there are also more serious people, like you, who analyze the phenomenon of Street Art like an art movement rather than, like the uninformed journalists you mention, a trendy spectacular movement that won't leave it's mark in art history.


Sherwin: In recent years there has been a steady flow of debate about the direction of street/graffiti art in regards to the mainstream professional art world-- as in, the world of art galleries and art museums. Many feel that street art surrounded by four walls takes away from the strength and history of the work. That said, it is common to see notable street artists embracing galleries and museums over doing direct work on the streets. Within the various scenes, at least in the US, it appears that some street artists view prestigious art exhibits as a show of status-- whereas in the past the work itself would have been the only consideration. This situation leaves many asking, "At what point is a street artist no longer a street artist?". Do you have an opinion on that? Can an artist claim to be a street artist while fully embracing the gallery scene and art market in general? What happens when a viable connection to the streets is lost due to celebrity?


Blek: One mustn't think that artists aren't stupid. Some of them understand that after they graffiti in the street they can promote themselves as a street artist via the internet and media. They cheat on the audience. This is the price to be paid for the fact that street art has become mainstream. This has always happened: with music (there were ten genuine rock musicians, and ten million dressed like rockers on motorbikes). I mean, it is not enough to say "I am a street artist" to be one. Some of you find a bit in the street and a lot in galleries. But will their work remain?


On the other hand I don't think that working in the street is opposed to showing your work in the gallery. Because like in every art movement each creation has a (financial) value. It is normal that street artists too have to make a living AND leave the marks of their creativity on other media than the wall.


Sherwin: Some feel that street art-- at least within the realm of public opinion-- is quickly becoming Wall Street Art in the sense that some street artists tend to have business relationships with corporate entities that contradict the wider message of their artwork. In other words, some street artists make a political stance concerning society only to convey the complete opposite of that stance in their business ventures. For example, an artist who claims to be wary of how corporations treat workers ends up accepting a job with a company known for trying to stamp out unions. True, a paid gig, if you will, can help one to feed his or her family-- but isn't it important for an artist utilizing the streets to be faithful to that approach and the messages he or she makes both verbally and visually? Do contradictions like this concern you?


Blek: The world is full of contradictions, why should street art be different? We all have to live with our contradictions. The only people who were straight and pure... Mao, Stalin and Hitler -- equal annoying and big disasters. It is a good question but it doesn't kill anybody to compromise a bit.


Of course theses questions concern me , I have lived with it ever since I started. I have never been one of the "straight and pure", I often change my mind and for these reasons never belonged to a political party. I try to be tolerant rather than monolithic.


Sherwin: The opinions concerning graffiti art-- and street art in general-- have changed drastically in the last 30 years-- both in how the art world accepts said work and how the public embraces it. Do you have any predictions for years to come? How will these movements within a larger movement, if you will, continue to assimilate into popular culture-- how will artists working on the street maintain the integrity of their visual message while working within a society that is debatably growing more tolerant of this direction of artistic creation in general?


Blek: I think we are at a turning point since, as you say, street art is more recognized today than thirty years ago. Although I am not sure that this is a good thing. It doesn't depend on the institutions or the audience -- but on the artists. If there are ten thousand pseudo-street artists whose only aim is to get fame and money it is going to be difficult. But if there are talented people who have a true message and choose to share this on the walls, then street art is heading for good days.


The fact that it is forbidden doesn't contribute in any way to the fact that street art is exceptional. The more the audience is receptive... the more the creativity will be interesting. The day street art is 100% tolerated all over the world, artists will have the opportunity to invent a new city where art will be a part of the urban landscape and not only confined in places dedicated to art like museums or galleries.


We can imagine a city where artists work on a human level. One of the negative outcomes today is, in my opinion, the trend of some artists to produce huge big, gigantic frescoes and paste ups which are out of human scale. These artists use the urban space to express their megalomaniac desire, but don't care about the impact of art in public space. I believe street art has to be human , on the scale of the eyes of the passers-by.


Sherwin: In closing, what advice do you have for graffiti artists-- and street artists in general? Specifically those who are just starting out.


Blek: I would say: liberate yourself from what has been done in street art, don't try to imitate what others have created. Try to create your own inner world to express it on the walls.


Take care, Stay true,


Brian Sherwin


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Topics: art appreciation | art criticism | art history | Brian Sherwin | FineArtViews 

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Kenneth Jensen
Your article was thought provoking. However I found your supposition that traditional graffiti art is important because it has been utilized as a means of giving minority communities a voice and that makes it worth defending a bit troubling.Lawless acts of vandalism very rarely should be worth defending, whether they have a social message or not. If we start justifying vandalism or any lawless act on the premise that it has a social message, it goes against the rule of law. We get trapped in a supposed situation where the only recourse is to break the law, when the question you pose is looked at in only two dimensions then one can become boxed in by it, whereas when the question is rephrased to be, is there a legal way for the social message to be presented rather than defacing another person or persons property, the question becomes multi dimensional.
Blek la Rat resorted to graffiti in order to get the attention of his contemporaries and gain fame because he only thinks two dimensionally, being a stencil artist. Is graffiti art or street art the only voice of the {minority community) available or is it their lawless nature that is its genesis? Interestingly I believe Blek la Rat is not a minority. Oft times there are those who adopt a supposed moral social issue as a tool to gain fame or power. They hide their true motive behind a supposed just cause. Which it would appear the rat did, as he admits in his own words, “I felt the need to get out of the anonymity created by the life in the city and stenciling was an extraordinary means to show to my contemporaries that I existed.”, “From my first graffiti on I knew this would create a buzz and engender reactions from the audience (the passers-by)”
He didn't say it was the only way, it was an extraordinary way. So breaking the law was an opportunity to get recognition. I think it is a mistake to hold up the lawless as some great person with monikers like "original stencil pioneer", "the grandfather of street art". "The old man of street art", “modern street art messiah", an “artist who truly spearheaded innovation in street art” and by so doing glorify the acts of lawless vandalism.
I would rather classify Blek la Rat as a reactionary, glory seeker and not some noble pioneer of the arts even if other lawless individuals followed him. It may be easy to condemn the rich and the establishment as it seems in your following statement.
“Yet we continue to see market-minded / celebrity embracing graffiti artists, such as SABER, create works that are clearly spurred by the need to be seen by the powers that be within the high profile art world. The focus appears to be about bringing attention back to the 'self' (with money and marketability in mind) rather than social causes (though social causes may be exploited for the purpose) or distributing an authentic message born from the streets.” Is Blek la Rat exploiting social causes for the purpose of gaining recognition for himself? Gaining recognition was what he admitted his purpose for doing graffiti was.
To your question of whether the current direction of graffiti art is worth defending I would ask which direction you are referring to, Graffiti art that is done lawlessly in a vandalizing way, or the legally produced so called graffiti. I say so called because that which is done legally, by Wikipedia definition is not graffiti.
I would have to say the illegal way is not defensible and the legal way is not graffiti.


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