Blek le Rat, born Xavier Prou in Boulogne-Billancourt, Paris in 1952, was one of the first graffiti artists in Paris, and the originator of stencil graffiti art
He began his artwork in 1981, painting stencils of rats on the street walls of Paris, describing the rat as “the only free animal in the city”, and one which “spreads the plague everywhere, just like street art”. His name originates from a childhood cartoon “Blek le Roc”, using “rat” as an anagram for “art”. Initially influenced by the early graffiti art of New York City after a visit in 1971, he chose a style which he felt better suited Paris, due to the differing architecture of the two cities. He also stated the influence of New York’s Richard Hamilton, who painted large-scale human figures in the 1980s. He is credited with being the inventor of the life-sized stencil, as well as the first to transform stencil from basic lettering into pictoral art.
In October 2006, Blek le Rat had his first solo U.K. exhibition in London at the Leonard Street Gallery. He participated in the Cans Festival in 2008, which featured outdoor street stencil painting in Waterloo, London by many of street art’s biggest names. His American gallery debut took place at Subliminal Projects Gallery in Los Angeles in 2008. It included paintings, silkscreen and three-dimensional artwork, as well as photography from his wife, Sybille Prou. Blek also had an exhibition in December 2009 at the Metro Gallery in Melbourne, a centre of street art in Australia. The exhibition entitled; “Le Ciel Est Bleu, La Vie Est Belle” (The sky is blue, life is beautiful), featured wooden panels, canvas, screen-print and photographs, tracing the artist’s oeuvre from the early 1980s to the present.
Blek le Rat has nonetheless expressed preference for the streets over galleries, stating the integrity of an artist is to be seen by as many people as possible, not being sold or recognized in a museum.
Blek’s identity was revealed to French authorities in 1991 when he was arrested while stenciling a replica of Caravaggio’s Madonna and Child, with the connection to Blek and his artwork being made by police. From that point on, he has worked exclusively with pre-stenciled posters, citing the speedier application of the medium to walls, as well as lessened punishment should he be caught in the act.
He has had a great influence on today’s graffiti art and “guerilla art” movements, the main motivation of his work being social consciousness and the desire to bring art to the people. Many of his pieces are pictorials of solitary individuals in opposition to larger, oppressive groups. He has also been noted for his series of images representing the homeless, begun in 2006, which depict them standing, sitting or laying on sidewalks, in attempts to bring attention to what he views as a global problem.
British graffiti artist Banksy has acknowledged Blek’s influence stating “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.” Blek has disagreed with those who claim Banksy has copied his work: “People say he copies me, but I don’t think so. I’m the old man, he’s the new kid, and if I’m an inspiration to an artist that good, I love it. I feel what he is doing in London is similar to the rock movement in the Sixties.”
The two have both expressed desire for collaboration; in 2011, Blek was seen adding to a mural begun the previous year by Banksy in the Mission District, San Francisco.