“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…”
Before Banksy, there was Blek le Rat. If he doesn’t sound familiar, it’s because instead of tagging his own moniker, the “Father of Stencil Graffiti” (real name Xavier Prou) introduced a new style of street art to the world. In the ’80s, he sent spray-painted rats loose on the streets of Paris; two decades later, wheat-pasted life-size posters of Florence Aubenas, the French journalist kidnapped in Iraq, on city walls. This month, le Rat’s first solo show in the States opens at Shepard Fairey’s Subliminal Projects Gallery. Art Is Not Peace But War
features new paintings and a three-dimensional installation by le Rat, photography by his wife and partner-in-crime, Sybille Prou, and a special-edition screen-printed series, a collaboration between artist and curator.You pioneered street art in Paris, so from where did you draw inspiration?
The first time I was introduced to graffiti was in New York in 1971; I was very impressed by what I saw in the subway and around the city. It took me ten years to decide to make my own graffiti. I was influenced by an American artist, Richard Hamilton. He started painting these big human figures and their shadows in New York in the ’80s. He was the first guy to export his work abroad, to Paris, London, Belgium, Italy… This guy was so important but he never got really famous. I decided to make stencils (it’s a very old technique used by Italians during the Renaissance period) because I didn't want to imitate American graffiti. How did you come up with the name Blek le Rat, and why did you stencil rats?
There was a comic I used to have as a kid in France called Blek le Roc, so I transformed the name to Blek le Rat because ‘rat’ is an anagram for ‘art.’ I put tens of thousands, maybe a hundred thousand, shadows of small rats running along the streets in Paris. As a teenager even, my aim was to push the people to make graffiti art like me. Making a stencil is very easy; you don't have to be an art student. So, I though that if I did those stencils in the street, other artists would have the strength to do it also. People all over the world do stencils now. It’s very surprising.What inspired Art Is Not Peace But War?
An artist’s life is a very difficult life. I took the phrase, “Art is not peace but war,” from Norman Maile's first article about graffiti for The New York Times
in 1972. For me, I don't see art in peace, you have to fight a lot to be an artist, your life is like a war.What is it like working with your wife?
My wife and I have been married for ten years now. I think as an artist it is very difficult to get some work done alone. She is a big part of the work; she gives me all sorts of ideas. The only thing we talk about is the work—It’s terrible for my children (laughing)! It’s Blek le Rat and Sybille, Sybille and Blek le Rat. This is your first solo show in the States. Why now?
I’ve loved the United States since my youth. My only regret in life is not to be American! I never imagined I would be having an exhibition in this country. In Europe it's very difficult to get into the American art market. I've had exhibitions all over the world, but now when I say I am showing in Los Angeles, people in Europe are so impressed! What artists do you admire these days?
Of course Bansky. I think he’s the only true artist on the streets in England now. I also really like American graffiti; I'm very impressed by the work of Swoon… And she’s so young! I really respect Shepard for his work. I prefer to exhibit in Shepard’s gallery rather than a museum. I think he’s the most important artist of his generation. He is important as Andy Warhol was important.
SAMANTHA GILEWICZArt Is Not Peace But War
April 5 - May 2, 2008
Subliminal Projects Gallery
1331 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angelessubliminalprojects.com