Xavier Prou or popularly known as Blek Le Rat, a French graffiti artist was born on the 15th of November 1952, in Boulogne-Billancourt, western suburbs of France. Dubbed “The father of stencil graffiti”, Blek Le Rat attended the École Des Beaux Arts in France before graduating in 1982. He is said to be an inspiration to many stencil artists for years such as Banksy and Invader. He is also nicknamed ‘Banquesy’, the French Banksy.
Le Rat gathered inspiration from Blek Le Roc, a French Comic about American trappers during the Revolutionary War and adopted part of the name for his own. Le Rat begun his art in the streets of Paris around 1981 painting rats. He described his rats as, “only free animal in the city, one which spreads the plague everywhere, just like street art”. Eventually settling for the “rat” name as an anagram of “art”.
Before he graduated, Le Rat visited New York and fell in love with the city’s street art and graffiti in 1971. He returned to France determined to make a difference. And that he did. As he didn’t feel New York’s still would suite his hometown, he decided to go a different route and develop a unique style for Paris. At that time, no artist was using stencils for their work and here’s why Le Rat stood out of the pack. Most street art is deemed illegal and comes with hefty fines. Le Rat didn’t want to spend so much time on the streets due to the police, and hence the genius use of stencils to make it even faster.
The Rise of the Stencil Graffiti King
Canadian artist, Richard Hambleton brought his work to Paris from the US in the early 80s. At this time, Blek Le Rat was already doing his black rats stencils and was inspired by Richards’s larger pieces. So, he began making larger pieces of art and even self-portraits.
Blek creates all his stencils by hand to ensure a perfection and best use street art use. He is credited as the first person to create life-sized stencils and transforming stencils from the then basic imagery done by most artists.
The first meeting of the urban art movement and graffiti was held in Bondy, France in 1985. Blek Le Rat, Leonard Hilton McGurr was known as Futura, Sylvain Perier also known as SP 38, Miss.tick and Olivier Rizzo aka Speedy Graphito, were among those in attendance.
In 1991, Blek dedicated a replica of Madonna di Loreta, by Caravaggio an Italian Baroque master to his then future wife, Sybille. This image is Le Rat’s oldest known artwork. In the making of this replica, the French police identified and arrested Le Rat. This brought about his subsequent use of premade stencils, which made the use more efficient in speed and also avoiding the larger fines that came with being caught in the act.
Competition or Comparison?
Although the two have never met, much comparison has been done in the industry between Blek Le Rat and Banksy artworks. Prou has definitely had influence over Banksy. In the past, Banksy has been quoted saying, “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”. Le Rat’s response to this sentiments was , “People say he copies me, but I don’t think so. I’m the old man, he’s the new kid, and if I’m an inspiration to an artist that good, I love it”. Their relationship has been mainly based on rivalry and admiration and increasingly unstable over the years.
Despite these sentiments, Le Rat has been quoted expressing his “anger” with Banksy in a Graffiti Wars documentary by Channel 4. He has publicly expressed his disappointment with Banksy making a man with a child or Banksy making rats. While some could argue Banksy made Le Rat famous by taking on most of his previous work intentionally or not, Le Rat was however displeased as Banksy was reproducing his technique and style in street art. He went ahead to suggest Banksy reveals his identity for everyone to know what kind of person he was. As fans and enthusiasts hope a pray for a collaboration between the two, it remains to be seen what comes out of the two artists’ differences.
Blek Le Rat’s organized his first solo exhibition in October of 2006 at the Leonard Street Gallery in London. Most of his oeuvre has been included in many collections and galleries all around the world. He also took part in the Cans Festival in 2008 were famous street artists were also featured. Prou made his American debut in 2008 at an event held in Subliminal Projects Gallery in Los Angeles, Southern California. At this exhibition, he featured his wife’s photography and three-dimensional artworks. In December 2009, Le Rat had an exhibition titled, ‘Le Ciel Est Bleu, La Vie Est Belle’. Which translates to ‘The sky is blue, life is beautiful.’ This exhibition mainly covered his work from the early 80s to 2009. In a bid to bridge the divide, he went ahead to exhibit 25 unique lithography monotypes and large-scale artworks as well.
With a career spanning an impressive 30 years, this artist has no intentions of stopping anytime soon. As signaled from previous interviews, “I will never stop. Ever. Unless there was something wrong with my legs. But 30 years is a long time. It’s a lifetime. This is my life”. Prou still commands a great deal of influence in today’s guerrilla style art movement and street art. No doubt his name will be revered for many years to come.