Blek the Rat, born Xavier Prou, is an internationally famous street artist. He is known as being the pioneer for use of life-size stencil characters in graffiti. He started as a Parisian who attended Beaux-Arts, studying fine art and architecture (Forbes). With these credentials, one would think he would turn out more like Frank Ghery. How did he turn to graffiti art?
Before he even graduated from Beaux, Prou took a fateful trip to New York in the 70s. During this trip, he became very interested in the art that had developed on the streets of New York City. He has said, ‘”I was so impressed it took me 10 year to digest what I saw”’ (StencilRevolution). After those ten years of NYC’s street art stewing around in his mind, inspiration was triggered once he saw youths tagging a building. He decided to pick up graffiti art.
At the time, graffiti was not considered an art form at all—it was more an act of rebellion. Rather, le Rat can actually be credited for inspiring graffiti as a form of expression of urban themes. Before le Rat and others like him, graffiti was less an art and more a mark of possession, used by gangs to denote territory. Therefore, not only was le Rat’s art creative, it was also revolutionary. Blek le Rat helped graffiti art gain legitimacy, changing it from an image of fear and violence (StencilRevolution). Because of his efforts on the streets, spray paint has become the modern paint brush.
Below is a video where le Rat paints using his typical stencil method, and explains some of his creative process. Most of his stencils are created by hand, with themes inspired by each individual location. He has even been known to tweak images that he has done in order to adapt them to the city he is painting the piece. He travels from city to city and tries to present the tones of each individual city’s atmosphere. The city atmosphere dictates one of the key stylistic features of his art: the black and white stenciled images.
Compared to other famous street artists, such as Banksy, Blek le Rat’s motivations have remained pretty intrinsic. From the start, Prou said he just wanted to “free himself from the feeling of anonymity caused by living in a major city” (Stencil Revolution). Although this may seem like an extrinsic motivation for fame, Blek le Rat stayed anonymous until the police actually released his identity after they had arrested him.
Also, compared to Banksy’s pieces, one of which was sold for over a million dollars, Prou’s art is sold at much lower rates. According to Forbes, at his shows le Rat’s prices range from $300 to $4,000 depending on size. The more affordable prizes are not based on skill level, either. Rather, Banksy has actually been accused of plagiarizing some of le Rat’s work. The similarities are particularly striking between le Rat’s TV helmet piece (top) and Banksy’s TV heads piece (bottom) (StencilRevolution).
Although he says his motivations are not political, he has more recently painted images of Barack Obama and the homeless. For his work portraying the conditions of homelessness especially, it appears le Rat has altruistic motivations. By painting life-size images of homelessness on the streets, le Rat brings attention to a serious issue in urban areas. While people generally avoid the homeless, they are willing to stop and contemplate a painting of homelessness. This project especially is distinct from his other images of less serious urban themes (such as the TV helmets and tango dancers for which he is known).
There is a significant cost to his illegal art, however. He has been arrested numerous times, and has to paint quickly so as to not be caught. With such a mental cost, and relatively little artistic payoff (after all, he can’t take the walls with him and he has to paint very quickly), le Rat describes himself as “weary” (StencilRevolution). His motivations are becoming more extrinsic, as a desire for retirement is setting in. I wonder if there will be a noticeable change in his artwork, as his motivations shift?