Featured Artist: Blek le Rat
Pioneering French graffiti artist Blek Le Rat was born in 1952 in Boulogne-Billancourt in the western suburbs of Paris. Blek is considered among one of the first graffiti artists in Paris, and often described as the “Father of stencil graffiti”.
Blek began his graffiti art in 1981, using stencils instead of stylized lettering for graffiti. His gigantic graphic images of rats which he stenciled all over Paris took the city by surprise. To him image of rat symbolized both freedom and the dissemination of art through the city as if it were the plague. He himself described the rat as “the only free animal in the city”, and one which “spreads the plague everywhere, just like street art”.
Blek was inspired by early graffiti-art of New York City during his visit in 1971. After his return he began to look out for possibilities that he can use to bring graffiti to Paris. Unlike graffiti art of New York he developed a different style which he felt better suited Paris, due to the differing architecture of the two cities. Blek also recognizes the influence of Canadian artist Richard Hambleton, who painted large-scale human figures in the 1980s. Blek’s oldest preserved street art graffiti, a 1991 replica of Caravaggio’s Madonna di Loreta, which he dedicated to his future wife Sybille, was rediscovered behind posters on a house wall in Leipzig, Germany, in 2012.
Blek was caught in 1991 by French authorities while stenciling a replica of Caravaggio’s Madonna and Child, and from that point on, he preferred to work 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.
Blek who has had a great influence on today’s graffiti-art and “guerilla-art” movements, counts the infamous Banksy among his many admirers. The main motive of his graffiti is to develop 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. In recent years Blek’s work has become more political, focusing on the homeless, the environment, and other social causes. His posters of kidnapped French journalist Florence Aubenas helped to raise public awareness of her situation, pressuring politicians and journalists to work harder for her release. In 2006 he began his series of images representing the homeless, which depict them standing, sitting, or lying on sidewalks, in attempts to bring attention to what he views as a global problem.
Although Blek 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, his work has been shown in various exhibitions. In October 2003, he had his first solo 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. 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.