Interview: Blek le Rat
LONELY PLANET: STREET ART
Blek le Rat was one of the first graffiti artists in Paris, and is widely credited with being the first to evolve stencilling from basic lettering into pictorial art. He began in 1981 by painting rats on the walls of Paris, describing them as ‘the only free animal in the city’. Although initially influenced by the early graffiti art of New York City, he later developed a unique style that he felt better suited the architecture of the Parisian streets. Often referred to as ‘the father of stencil graffiti’, Blek is influential not only for his innovative use of the medium, but also for his socially conscious choice of subject matter.
What was behind your original inspiration to create art on the streets?
The first time I saw graffiti was in 1971 in New York. I was profoundly intrigued and knew immediately that I wanted to be involved, but I also knew that I didn’t want to do it in the same way as the American artists.
How did you come to use stencils?
I had seen a striking stencil portrait of Mussolini in Italy when travelling with my parents as a child, and when looking for my personal means of expression I remembered this old technique. I found that the stencil better suited the architecture of Paris than the big graffiti pieces I had seen in America.
You are famous for your rats – the ultimate survivor in the metropolis. Why did you choose it as your motif?
In 1980 I lived near the Montmartre cemetery in Paris, which might be the reason that there were so many well-fed rats! I found this very anachronic compared with the image people have of Paris. Later on I learned that the whole city was full of rats – that there were even more rats than inhabitants.
Amusingly the word rat is also an anagram of art, which established an even stronger link between myself and the rats. The society of rats works in a way that would make them survivors of an apocalypse, and I have survived 35 years in the art world, just like a rat.
How important is the placement and context of street art? What makes an interesting location for your work?
When I paint in the streets I intend to give a present to the people of the city. For these reasons I try to impregnate myself with the different parfums (scents) of the city in which I am working, in order to paint something that corresponds to the identity of the city and that its people can therefore identify with.
What’s your opinion on the current global street art scene, and particularly the proliferation of street art festivals around the world?
Simply that it’s proof of the fact that street art is the biggest artistic movement of all time.
Street art has a strong history of socio-political messaging, yet the trend seems to be increasingly driven by aesthetics. Is there a risk of over-sanitisation?
Of course, but that was foreseeable. When an artform becomes very popular it is always likely to lose some of its originality and become sanitised. We have seen the same phenomenon with music. But one can still like street art for its aesthetics just as one can like French pop music for its légèrté (lightness).
What is your favourite place you’ve painted in your career and why?
Travelling the USA in 2007. We were on a road trip through California and pasted posters of the Space Cowboy and a family of pioneers. That was one of those moments when the images, the environment and the history became one thing.
Artist’s Site: bleklerat.free.fr
All images reproduced with permission from Street Art, © 2017 Lonely Planet – lonelyplanet.com
Published April 2017 / 224pp, full colour, H200mm x W200mm, hardcover RRP: AUD $29.99 / NZD $35