At WCC, A Solo Show for Monsieur le Rat

Written by J. Scott Orr
Photography by Daryl-Ann Saunders

Street art was in the air at West Chelsea Contemporary (WCC) the other day. It smelled a lot like spray paint.

Just inside the 10th Ave. gallery’s double glass doors, a figure was bent over a table, engrossed in the task of applying black spray paint to a stencil of a figure holding a crown. The artist turned to greet newcomers, his face obscured by a respirator that was protecting him from the aerosol fumes. He lifted the mask to reveal the youthful 71-year-old face of one of the world’s foremost street artists, the Frenchman known globally as Blek le Rat.

This new stenciled piece he was working on was one of three being created to mark the public opening of his eagerly awaited solo show at WCC, slated for Saturday 8/20/22 at 2 p.m. He set the newly-minted artwork aside and moments later, in an office off the gallery’s main floor, Blek was enthusiastically espousing his thoughts on the state of street art and its place as a movement today and over the history of art.

“Street art is the most important movement in the history of art.”

“Street art is the most important movement in the history of art,” Blek said matter-of-factly, revealing not the least discomfort with the statement’s monumental sweep. The topic, you’d assume from his assertive tone and unyielding demeanor, is not even up for debate.

“I really believe that we are in the beginning of it now. If you count the number of artists all over the world, every day creating pieces, it never happened before in the history of art… Absolutely, the best artists in the world are working in the street,” he said.

Photo by Daryl-Ann Saunders

“Absolutely, the best artists in the world are working in the street.”

This unquestioning assessment came from a man whose life changed 50 years ago, almost to the day, during a visit to New York where he encountered graffiti tags for the first time (among them the tag of TAKI 183 who has a supporting role a bit later in this story). That 1972 visit to Gotham was the first of several art epiphanies Monsieur le Rat would encounter over the coming decades.

Starting in the early 80s with the simple stenciled image of a rat, Blek has over the years grown his stable of subjects to include life-size images of people, some famous, some anonymous. Often his social consciousness comes to the fore in portraits of the needy: women, children, old people, the homeless and beggars with looks of despair on their faces. He’s also done dancers and angels, soldiers and sheep, musicians and artists. And of course the ubiquitous rodents: rats flying through the air; rats with guns, spray paint cans and baguettes; rats engaged in a tug-of-war with children; rats offering words of advice like “everything comes to those who wait.”

The current show includes new portraits of classical music protagonists Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt, riot police floating amid flowery colored backdrops, and lots of dancers. And no Blek show would be complete without an appearance from Street Artist Rat, a rat clutching a spray paint can, and The Man Who Walks Through The Walls, a self-portrait that uses the body of Buster Keaton carrying suitcases to suggest Blek’s mission to spread the gospel of street art across the globe.

Photo by Daryl-Ann Saunders

“The growing demand for and popularity of street art, and particularly stencil art, offers a huge opportunity for those looking to invest.” – Forbes

The show opens at a time when collector interest in stencil art is feverish. Earlier this month Forbes published a piece titled “The Rise Of Stencil Art And Tips For Investing” that said “the growing demand for and popularity of street art, and particularly stencil art, offers a huge opportunity for those looking to invest.” The piece referred to Blek as the “father of stencil graffiti,” a sobriquet the artist acknowledges demurely.

Blek has been more and more in demand in recent years. Before arriving in New York he collaborated with TAKI 183 to create murals and hold a workshop at Graffiti HeArt, a Cleveland-based art nonprofit. And, getting back to TAKI 183 for a moment, he was due at WCC to add his tag to the three crowning stencils Blek was making for the show. Though it had been 50 years since Blek first saw TAKI 183’s tag, the two had never met.

“The best moment (of the weekend in Cleveland) was when I met TAKI 183,” Blek said of his first ever encounter with the artist from 183rd St. in Washington Heights who may have been graffiti tagging’s practitioner zero.

From here, Blek’s next stop is in Austin, where he will team with LA street art legend RISK to collaborate on mural painting and a show called Street Kings at the WCC gallery in the Texas capital. While these are his first solo shows in the U.S. in a while, Blek has hardly been a stranger to American cities.

Photo by Daryl-Ann Saunders

By this weekend, new Blek le Rat works are expected to appear in NYC, including at least one slated to appear at a location in the Lower East Side.

In 2020, he completed “Last Tango,” a 46-foot tall black and white image of two dancers performing a dip with golden doves flying overhead on the facade of the Residences at La Colombe d’Or, an apartment and boutique hotel tower in Houston. His work can also be found in the wild in Los Angeles; San Francisco; Miami; Eugene, Oregon; and Austin and Waco, in Texas.

By this weekend, new Blek le Rat works are expected to appear in NYC, including at least one slated for a location in the Lower East Side. Blek said he sticks largely to sanctioned locations these days: “I’m too old to run from the police,” he said, wryly.

Photo by Daryl-Ann Saunders

“Every time I think I’ve painted something slightly original, I find out that Blek le Rat has done it as well, only 20 years earlier.”  – Banksy

Blek has been an inspiration to countless street artists over the years, most famously to the secretive British superstar Banksy who has repeatedly named Blek as his stencil mentor. This quote issued six or seven years ago by Banksy has gained wide purchase: “Every time I think I’ve painted something slightly original, I find out that Blek le Rat has done it as well, only 20 years earlier.”

“Everything started again at this moment,” Blek said of the boost his career got from that single sentence. “Banksy was already known when he made the quote. Perhaps a few days after the quote some British (journalist) called me and asked me ‘Blek, are you still making paintings, still working in the street?’”

Blek also has drawn inspiration from other street art colleagues. Of particular importance was Richard Hambleton, the troubled street art virtuoso whose life-size shadowman figures startled and entertained people, first on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and then in cities around the world in the 1980s. Blek’s show at WCC includes a tribute to Hambleton, a life-size portrait atop a tense and active black and white splotched background.

Photo by Daryl-Ann Saunders

One of Blek’s inspirations, troubled New York street artist Richard Hambleton, “had a fate like Van Gogh, a tragic fate,” he said.

It was Hambleton’s shadowmen that inspired Blek to move from smaller format works to life-size portrayals of people. “When I saw his works in Paris, I was shocked. So I decided to make my pieces bigger,” he said. He said Hambleton, who suffered from drug addiction and mental health issues, “had a fate like Van Gogh, a tragic fate.” Hambleton died at 65 in 2017 greatly outliving his contemporaries, Keith Haring, who died of AIDS in 1990, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died of an overdose in 1988.

Deeper into Blek’s artistic subconscious are many of the great masters, particularly the legendary Italian painters da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio and Reni. His universe of inspiration, though, is limitless. “I’m a sponge,” he said. That he was drawn to art, and became an artist, is little surprise considering his upbringing.

Born Xavier Prou in Boulogne-Billancourt, Paris, in 1951, the embrace of art was a constant in Blek’s home growing up. “In my house there were paintings everywhere, because everyone in my family used to paint, there was the smell of turpentine everywhere,“ he told an interviewer last year. He said he was influenced by the vast art offerings in his hometown of Paris, as well as that he encountered on trips, particularly in Italy.

While Blek traces his roots in street art to that 1972 visit to NYC,  he also owes a debt to even earlier French artists who commandeered the streets on behalf of art, pioneers like Daniel Buren, Ernest Pignon-Ernest, and Gérard Zlotykamien.

Still, in those early years nearly a decade before he took to the streets in earnest, there was virtually no graffiti scene in Europe and only traces of what the scene would become in New York. As he noted in his artistic manifesto, “there was yet to be a movement of artists investigating the urban landscape and acting out artistically within it.”

As those seeds planted in the 70s germinated in his young mind, Blek devoted his artistic resources to studying fine arts and architecture at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. It was at this time Blek was confronted with the work of an unlikely influence, David Hockney, the multi-dimensional British artist known for his colorful portraits, collages and, famously, paintings of swimming pools.

It wasn’t until 1980 that he teamed up with his friend Gérard Dumas to form one of the world’s first graffiti teams: Blek le Rat, named for a favorite Italian comic called Blek le Roc, another unlikely influence in that the book traces the adventures of  a group of American trappers that fight against British Redcoats during the Revolutionary War. Blek le Rat was joined at about the same time the duo of  Jean-Michel Basquiat and Al Diaz were making history as SAMO© on the streets of lower Manhattan.

Photo by Daryl-Ann Saunders

His attempt to copy NYC-style freehand spray paint graffiti was an utter failure: “I didn’t have the skill. It was horrible.”

The duo’s inaugural mission, which sought to replicate New York style free-hand spray paint graffiti on a wall on Rue Thermopylae in Paris’ 14th arrondissement in 1981, was a fail. “I didn’t have the skill. It was horrible,” he said. But it provided the eureka moment when the novice street artist recalled the use of stencils to spread propaganda in Italy during World War II. And, voilà, the idea of stenciling claimed Blek’s artistic destiny. Armed with stencils and spray paint, the two members of Blek le Rat set out to paint the town. Soon, the works multiplied across the 14th and 18th like, well, like rats.

At first the images were simple and small – rats, tanks, bananas, little running men – stuff like that. On a freezing New Year’s Eve in 1981, the two pulled their biggest caper ever, placing their little stenciled objects on one of Paris venerable new art cathedrals, the Centre Pompidou. So unknown was graffiti at the time in Paris that museum guards simply smiled and walked away after confronting the pair while the stenciling was in progress. They were committing art, they told the guards, not crimes.

Photo by Daryl-Ann Saunders

They were committing art, they told the guards, not crimes.

By 1983, Dumas decided he had better things to do than stencil rats about the walls of Paris and departed, making Blek le Rat a solo act for the first time. It may have been at this point that Xavier Prou officially adopted the name he would serve for the next four plus decades. “The name that told me: You exist for thousands of people you do not know and you will never meet, but you exist in this closed world of urban anonymity,’” he wrote in his manifesto.

“I felt empowered to paint,” Blek wrote. “I had found liberty within the anonymity of my work, a form of freedom. I was alone in the city and the city was mine. After a night spent painting, I would pass by my walls again and again, sometimes standing for hours looking at my work and the people passing by. The smallest glance they gave my graffiti filled me with joy.”

The life-size works followed shortly after that, starting with a photo of an old man wearing a cap that was taken in Northern Ireland. Like many of his works, the old man bore a resemblance to the artist. This kind of vague self-portraiture would become a recurring theme in Blek’s work moving forward.

By 1983, Paris was smitten. And soon, other stencil artists sprang up that would eventually become the Parisian Street art community. At the same time, though, authorities began to stray from the laissez-faire attitude toward graffiti they had embraced when Blek started out. He was arrested for the first time in Les Halles, though nothing came of it. Still, it had its effect.

“From that moment on, I studied the habits of the cops, their comings and goings, which days they had off and the times they made their rounds. I learned to hide my equipment under cars, to have friends watch the streets where I was going to work, and finally, I got used to taking more precautions as my activities became illegal and the penalties increasingly severe,” he said.

Nonetheless, he was arrested again in 1991. But once again he encountered a sympathetic judge with an artistic eye.  “I cannot condemn you for this, it’s too beautiful,” the judge said.

In the years since, the Parisian public has embraced its vast open air art museum and authorities have rarely extracted steep penalties from street artists, though vandals that violate Paris’ many venerable buildings and landmarks remain subject to criminal proceedings. Blek says he hopes the trend away from treating street art as vandalism will continue.

“Though public opinion is slowly turning in our favor, most of society still considers urban art as a kind of prolific leprosy—a spreading blemish on the public facade. It is my belief that the metropolis blooms with poetic intentions inspired by the colors of our aerosol cans,” Blek wrote.

Asked about the future of street art and art in general, Blek shrugged his shoulders noting that if he knew what the next wave of art might look like, he’d create it himself. “I’m sure in this moment some guys 15-years-old, 13-years-old are figuring ‘how am I going to express myself in the street or in the city.’ And I’m sure some people will find a new expression,” he said.

J. Scott Orr is a career writer, editor and a recovering political journalist. He is publisher of the East Village art magazine B Scene Zine.

Instagram: @bscenezine