French graffiti pioneer Blek le Rat quit NYC for Austin Sunday, but he left his mark on the city in the form of beautiful and engaging stencil art in the East Village, Chelsea, the Lower East Side, Brooklyn, on people’s clothes, on a performance artist’s rat tail and who knows where else.
Blek’s one-man-show at West Chelsea Contemporary (WCC), 231 10th Ave., opened to the public Saturday with an artist talk during which he discussed the artists that inspire him, his favorite works, his fear of working illegally in the street and the origins of his famous name.
“I see you have some rats here in New York also,” Blek joked.
Also on Saturday, he used stencils to decorate the courtyard behind the WCC’s gift shop on 23rd Street with his original jumping rat design. He used these same stencils to adorn fans’ clothing, papers, books and the giant tail on the rat costume worn by performance artist and Instagram sensation Jonothon Lyons.
“I see you have some rats here in New York also,” Blek joked during remarks before the standing-room-only crowd at WCC on Saturday.
Between Wednesday and Saturday, Blek paid tribute to troubled New York Street art giant Richard Hambleton with black-and-white, life-size stenciled likenesses at the First Street Green art park between Houston and 1st St. at Second Ave., on Ave. A between 3rd and 4th Streets and at Habana Outpost, 757 Fulton St. in Brooklyn.
Hambleton, a first generation graffiti artist who was known for his life-sized shadow man images, died at 65 in 2017 after struggling for years with drug dependency and mental health issues. Hambleton made an early impression on Blek during the 1980s, inspiring him to branch out from small images of rats, bananas and other items, to creating the life-size stenciled images of people for which he is best known today.
Blek did not hesitate in naming Hambleton as his favorite artist, living or dead.
Responding to questions from the many street artists and fans who gathered Saturday afternoon at WCC, Blek did not hesitate in naming Hambleton as his favorite artist, living or dead. He noted that the only piece of art he ever purchased was by Hambleton, a piece in the late artist’s signature black-and-white style for which Blek paid $1,000 in 1990. The piece is now worth more than 100 times that.
Blek also offered a shout out to Shepard Fairey, the world renowned artist who works in the stencil tradition pioneered by Blek, but who developed a unique visual style that makes his works stand out from the thousands of other stencil artists to rise from the street since the technique was perfected in the 1980s. Blek said ideas are plentiful, but creating and executing an original style is the real challenge in any art form.
“To find a style that is unique is very difficult. Shepard has a great style so I respect him a lot.”
“To find a style that is unique is very difficult. Shepard has a great style so I respect him a lot,” the soft-spoken artist said.
And, of course, he also bowed to Banksy, the secretive British stencil artist who gave Blek’s career a boost with the well-known quote: “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.” While he said he communicates with Banksy via email from time to time, he isn’t quite sure who Banksy is, though he has some ideas.
On Banksy: “I don’t know if I met him or not.”
“I don’t know if I met him or not,” Blek said. He said he was introduced to various people over the years who might have been the mysterious artist, and he knows people who say they know him, but, at least for public consumption, he either doesn’t know who Banksy is, or he’s not saying.
Blek said that in terms of shaping his career the most important work he ever created was The Man Who Walks Through the Walls, a 2004 self-portrait featuring the artist’s head atop the body of actor Buster Keaton holding suitcases full of stencils. It debuted in London, but has since appeared in the streets of Buenos Aires, Leipzig, Prague and here in NYC.
“This image changed my life,” he said. In his mind, Blek said, the piece crystallized his mission to spread his art around the world. At the same time it provided the inspiration that has kept him on the road fairly consistently over the last couple of decades.
Blek told the audience that he took his name from a favorite comic book of his childhood called Blek le Roc, an unlikely inspiration for a French street artist since it was an Italian book that focused on the adventures of American trappers who opposed the British during the American Revolution.
While he embraces his past as a first generation graffiti artist, Blek said he no longer does unsanctioned street art for fear of being arrested.
“I don’t take a lot of pleasure in creating art in the street any more. I’m really paranoid.”
“I don’t take a lot of pleasure in creating art in the street any more. I’m really paranoid,” he said, noting that over his 40-year career as a street artist he was only arrested twice and neither resulted in any serious punishment. Today in France, he said, “you risk two years in jail and a $500 fine if you are caught.”
Still, the youthful 71-year-old vowed to continue making art as long as he is able: “It’s something so strong for me. It’s so important.”
Blek’s visit to New York followed a similar stop in Cleveland where he created works with NYC street art pioneer TAKI 183, who was also on hand to collaborate with Blek on a number of pieces at WCC. At the First Street Green, Blek’s work complemented that of the Bronx artist known as T-KID 170.
Next up, Blek opens a show called Street Kings on August 27 at the WCC gallery in Austin with RISK, the LA street artist who made his mark by tagging subway cars in New York City during the 1980s.