Henderson Shorter - Blek Le Rat

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"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..." - Banksy. 

Blek Le Rat is an infamous stencil graffiti artist from France, the 'godfather' of the medium as it is known today. Born as Xavier Prou in Paris, 1951, Blek Le Rat at École des Beaux Arts de Paris -Etching, Lithography for five years; Architecture for another six.  He began Stencil Graffiti around the age of 30, rather late compared to other, more notorious graffiti artists. But his personal belief is that the technique created street art appropriate to the city of Paris, given its historical past.  

His inspiration is rooted in the propaganda stencils of Mussolini seen in post-Fascist Italy. Being exposed to it at a young age, long after the dictator's fall, he saw the graffiti beyond its ideological connotations as more of a medium of communication, as a means of 'interfacing with the street'. This inspiration became amplified during a trip to New York in the 1970s, which exposed Blek to a new, more urgent phenomenon of street art.  There were the works of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat who were sources of inspiration for Blek Le Rat. That they were producing fine art provided a channel through which Blek Le Rat could comprehend the complexity of their works. Among the other New York graffiti artists whom Blek cited as inspirations include Taki 183. His tag represented the template of tags from New York of the 70s: a personal alias and the street from which one hailed. This sort of signature, when graffitied upon the street, could be seen as a way of making urban space legible, personal, a niche of familiarity in an alienating realm. This understanding of graffiti is echoed in the work of Blek Le Rat. 

While the works of Blek Le Rat are not political, they express awareness of society; they were intended to spread awareness of social issues. He began stenciling rats to demonstrate their proliferation in Paris. Later, he stenciled larger figures: homeless men; child beggars; religious figures; and others. These projects were largely inspired the street art of Richard Habbleton, whose mark was left in Paris when he worked there in 1982-83. As his work proliferated Paris - he was a pioneer of street art in Paris and in Europe - he began working in other French urban centers, and laterin the rest of Europe. 

After his prolific years of the 1970s and 1980s, charges were filed against Blek after he was caught in 1991; the result was ten years worth of fines to be paid in a single year. This legal debacle alone forced a change in expression. Post-1991, Blek began postering, a medium he now prefers to stencil graffiting:  

"Actually, I prefer to work with posters. Because you go faster. In the street, you must be very fast. If you stay longer than two minutes, the police come. But with posters you go very fast. In 30 seconds you can paste a poster. Also, it's not an aggression for the wall. I understand the reaction of people when they are not so happy to have graffiti on their walls. I want to be nice with people and I like people to be nice with me. That's the reason also I don't make aggressive images. You know all my images are suitable for people, for children, for everyone. Some graffiti artists want to destroy the city but I'm not like that at all. I don't want to make sex images or stuff like that. My images are a present I make for everyone." - Blek Le Rat, Interview w/ Pal Hansen, Times of London, June 8, 2008. 

These poster projects are easier, more mobile, less hazardous from a legal perspective. The intention of their content is still to bring awareness to major issues, such as urban poverty - intentionality that maintains contiguity with his historical work. As part of his post-1991 ambitions, projects are becoming increasingly global. In his own words,   

"Today in the 21st century, we don't have a whole lot of adventures left. For me, working in the streets is a great adventure. Alexander the Great made a campaign all the way to Asia. He left a trace in every city he went through, with graffiti. But he also brought the Greek culture to India. I'd like to remake this tour, through Greece, Turkey, Iran, up to Afghanistan, turn around to go to Egypt, and thus work in each city where Alexander the Great had passed through, leaving images. This will be my biggest adventure" - Blek Le Rat.

So, given his history, what is the contemporary significance of Blek Le Rat? As the  purported godfather of stencil graffiti, he has heavily influenced notable graffiti artists, such as Banksy and Sheppard Farley. These artists have popularized a particular medium of graffiti. And, in the case of Banksy, have elevated it to a commoditized work of fine art; his works on canvas now sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars through Christie's and Sotheby's. As regards his perspective on Banksy, Blek Le Rat stated:   

"I respect his work very much. He is very important. I started the movement but he is like my son. I consider him like my descendant. He took some ideas. But he changed them. And he took the movement to a huge level all over the world. If Banksy didn't exist I would still be a small French guy in Paris doing my things alone. Now I'm known here, I'm known in the States, I'm known everywhere. Thanks to Banksy." - Blek Le Rat, Interview w/ Pal Hansen, Times of London, June 8, 2008.

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