Blek le Rat

by Dread

Xavier Prou, Paris 1951. Alias Blek le rat, formó parte de la explosión del fenómeno Graffiti en Nueva York 1971. Es el pionero de la importante escena Stencil que se desarrolló en París a mediados de los 70 y los 80.

Si bien, durante los años 60, ya se utilizaban las plantillas para realizar pintadas de contenido político, técnica que pasó a ser una herramienta de propaganda en todos los países, como en las revueltas del mayo 68, en las que la Ecole des Beaux Arts jugó un papel importante. Y que el movimiento punk recuperó a partir de 1977. Fué Blek el primer artista, del que se tiene noticia, en aplicar la técnica de la plantilla con aerosol para hacer intervenciones de tipo artístico. Poco a poco sus obras ganaron en dimensiones y complejidad.

Blek le Rat  es un pseudónimo adaptado de una  revista de cómics italiana que el artista leía en su infancia– comenzó siendo un dúo. El segundo miembro abandonó la actividad a principios de 1982 dejando el pseudónimo a Prou. Uno de las primeras figuras repetidas por el  artista fue la silueta de una rata, que utilizó con profusión durante dos años hasta convertirla en ícon. En marzo de 1983 Blek ejecutó su primera figura humana de tamaño natural, la imagen de un anciano, que repartió por diez ciudades francesas. La popularidad del proyecto del anciano hizo que a partir de entonces toda la obra de Blek se compusiera de series independientes en las que se repite una figura de tamaño natural, serie inicial del postgraffiti icónico.

En un París que aún desconocía cualquier forma de expresión autónoma no política. La falta de estigma le permitió actuar en la calle con amplia libertad. La posterior popularización del postgraffiti, y sobretodo la generalización del graffiti a finales de la década, obligaron a Blek a actuar con discrección después de su primera detención en 1984. A partir del verano de ese año otros artistas habían comenzado a utilizar la plantilla a la manera de Blek en las calles de París. Pronto se formó una fuerte escena de postgraffiti centrada en la plantilla pero que hizo uso también del aerosol a mano alzada, el pincel, el cartel y el papel pegado. El fenómeno se popularizó especialmente a partir de la publicación por Le Monde en noviembre de 1986 de un artículo titulado “L’ecole de Blek le Rat” (La escuela de Blek le Rat).Muchos de los murales de este artista fueron ejecutados mediante la combinación libre de diferentes plantillas. La escena postgraffiti parisina de los ochenta vivió unos años de popularidad mediática que se tradujeron en varios libros, una que otra exposición y una subasta (en Drouot en 1986) en la que se vendió una obra de Blek por un precio bastante alto. Sin embargo el fenómeno no llegó a ser asimilado por el sistema del arte y cayó pronto en el olvido. La actividad en la calle cesó en los primeros años de los noventas, luego París fue invadido por el graffiti de las firmas (el tag) una manera desconocida en Europa hasta entonces; y Blek desapareció de la escena que él mismo había iniciado.

La explosión del arte urbano en la segunda mitad de la presente década, y sobretodo los numerosos paralelismos entre la obra de Blek y Banksy, ha significado la recuperación del francés y su súbito emplazamiento entre la élite del arte. Thames & Hudson publicó el primer monográfico sobre el artista en mayo de 2008. En sus obras Blek imprime imágenes con connotación religiosa, Maria y el niño Jesús se toman las calles. Retrospectiva simbólica, estética rica en sensualismo. Jesús y maria en las calles, escala humana, exquisita manera de persuadir.

La importancia estetica de la obra de Blek Le Rat radica en la necesidad y la capacidad de sacar el arte del circulo elitista de las sociedades, significa entregar desinteresadamente un mensaje vigoroso y de protesta en contra del statu-quo. Pero a la vez lleno de sutileza, complejidad y detalle en su ejecución. Con la sensibilidad como puente entre lo personal y lo contextual. Blek Le Rat y los pioneros del Graffiti Stencil Art, son mensajeros del espontáneo, del arte efímero, del action painting. Los hijos de la vida en las ciudades, los observadores del tiempo moderno proyectando espejos que impresionen de alguna manera las conciencias de los transeuntes inconmovibles y autómatas.

la vigencia de la obra de Blek Le Rat, tiene su manifestación en la evolución que se ha producido de las técnicas del stencyl artístico en las calles de las grandes ciudades como Berlín, New York, Buenos Aires, Rio, Tokio, Santiago a manos de grandes artistas como el ya mítico Inglés Banksy, quien declaró: “todo lo que estoy haciendo ya lo hizo Blek le Rat”. El arte urbano se tomó la escena, llenando de formas estilizadas el ghetto y las avenidas, no hay límites. Es la influencia del medio.

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Interview

Blek le Rat
By Jon Reiss

Long before there was “street art” as we now know it, there was Blek le Rat. He was one of the first graffiti writers in Europe; one of the first people to use stencils to make public art on the street; one of the first—if not the first—to break away from the dominance of New York graffiti style; and one of the first to use icons instead of writing his name. He has been an inspiration to artists all over the world, from JayBadbc to Oseas Duarte to Shepard Fairey to Banksy—whose work is often an homage to le Rat’s iconography.

I first met le Rat in the summer of 2005. I was filming Bomb It, a documentary about the global explosion of graffiti culture. For this film, director of photography and producer Tracy Wares and I traveled to Europe, South Africa, Brazil and Japan. While in Paris, we tracked down le Rat in the French countryside—the exact location of which le Rat wanted to keep hidden—and sprung for the 300-mile train ride to see him.

I spoke to le Rat in the abandoned 10th century castle that he had appropriated—in true punk style—some 15 years prior. He turned out to be a well-dressed, seemingly innocuous man, and a passionate and articulate artist.

His castle was a wonderful backdrop for his stunning stencil creations. Le Rat worked on his art in the castle and lived nearby with his wife Sybille, a talented photographer who has published several books about stenciling and graffiti, and his 12-year-old son Alexander, who had been dragged out on bombing missions with his parents ever since he could walk.

A year later in the summer of 2006, I interviewed le Rat again, this time in Paris. He was dressed in the same button-down oxford shirt and khaki pants as the year before. We had arranged for him to meet with Florence Aubenas, the Belgian journalist for the French newspaper Libération who, with her translator Hanoun Al-Saadi was kidnapped in Iraq in 2005. They were released five months later. During Aubenas’ captivity, le Rat instituted a poster campaign for the journalist, putting images of her likeness around the Paris offices of Libération and all throughout the city.

What follows are excerpts from these interviews—some of which will appear in the documentary I directed and its sequel—but some of which are only revealed on the pages of SWINDLE.

Could you introduce yourself?

I am Blek, Blek le Rat. I am a French graffiti artist. I was one of the first artists to use stencils for an artistic purpose in Paris in the beginning of the 1980s—in ‘81 exactly. At first, I put rats and I made them run along the wall. I wanted to do a rat invasion. I put thousands all over Paris.

How did you come up with the name Blek le Rat?

Blek le Roc [Blek the Rock] was a comic strip that I used to read when I was a kid. Blek le Roc was a fur trader or a trapper in the USA fighting against the British invasion army during the [sic] Boston Tea Party era. I used to love this comic strip, [which was] actually written and drawn by an Italian guy in the ’60s. When I started to make graffiti I took this name of Blek and I changed “the Rock” to “the Rat” because I used to paint rats in the street of Paris and also because in “rat” you can find “art.”

Why rats?

The rat is the only free animal in the city. It’s an animal that people fear and has a strong history of bringing disease. When rats invade a town, it is bad.

At the time, in 1981, there wasn’t any graffiti in Paris. The first time that I saw graffiti ever in my life done in an artistic way, not just to write “shit” on the bathroom, was in New York City in 1971. When I went down in the street to do graffiti, I wanted to do American pieces like I had seen in New York. [But] I told myself, “No, I mustn’t do that.” In the environment of my city, in the architecture of the city where I was born, it doesn’t look like America. Paris doesn’t look like New York. I had to do something completely different. I wanted to bring forth my own version of graffiti and my own culture. For that I did stencils because the stencil is something very Latin. Something very French, Italian, Spanish—something very, very Latin.
The fascists in Italy used a lot of stenciling during WWII. They would do Mussolini’s portrait. I had seen this when I was young, and I remembered that when I was considering how to interface with the street. The South Americans have also used stenciling in the 1970s to do propaganda.

The first stencil ever made in the world is the hand in the cave, of the first men. They mixed the paint with water and put it in their mouth and spat the paint on the wall. That was the first stencil.

What was your first larger work besides the rats?

My first instinct was to be known. I had a desire for recognition—that people know who is Blek.
The problem with cities is anonymity. We’re alone in the city. You know that if you leave your image in the streets, the next day 50,000 people will have seen your image.

The first major portrait I did was of an old man, like a bum, because there are a lot of bums in the city. His mouth was wide open, wore glasses, hands behind his back. We had an impression that he was screaming in the streets. I wanted to say was “I exist.” I exist through this bum.

Little by little I stretched out all over France, then Germany, Spain, Italy, New York, London, everywhere—almost everywhere in the world. I’m going to China, where I’ll put some on The Great Wall. I work a bit everywhere in the world.
When I’m in a city, I look at the walls a lot—more than the people. What’s written on the walls reflects the society that lives in the city. [It] evokes the city. People write, paint, express their passions, their anger, their love, their fear of dying, on the walls.

Can you talk about your problems with the police?

I had legal problems in 1991, had a trial and it lasted a year. I had to pay fines for 10 years of graffiti in one year. I don’t paint on the wall anymore because if I get caught by the police painting a wall, I’ll go to prison. I have no desire to go to prison. So, I stick the posters, it’s less dangerous.

But if the police arrive I’ll say, “Excuse me, sir, I’ll take it off and I won’t do it again.” In France, you can be fined 50,000 euros (about $66,000) for graffiti. [If] you put up a poster and get caught, they count the number of posters and you get a fine for every one.

You mentioned something about dog shit?

I love Paris very much. I’m very attached to her. But Paris is the city of dog shit. There is not another city in the world where the people don’t clean the dog shit. In London they clean the dog shit, in New York they clean the dog shit, in Los Angeles they clean the dog shit. In Paris—no. The contradiction is that to stick a poster on the wall [is] illegal. You can go to prison. You can pay a huge fine. But for the dog shit, it’s free.

So why are people so against graffiti?

The problem is that 40% of people like graffiti and the other 60% don’t like it. But the 40% who like [it] don’t want it on their wall—that’s the problem. Graffiti is somehow an aggression towards the wall. You assault people by leaving an image. It’s not in people’s mindset that an artist can intervene in the city to create. It will be. We saw how many years it took surrealism to be accepted, or pointillism, Van Gogh. In art things take a long time.

How do you feel about the growing relationship between graffiti and the art world?

The problem with galleries is that… 99% of urban artists use urban art as a stepping stone into the galleries. It’s a fatal error because in galleries they’re seen by 40 people, in museums they’re seen by 10 people, but in the streets they’re seen by 100,000 people. And that’s the integrity of an artist’s work: to be seen. Not be sold or to be recognized in a museum—but to be seen by the world.

What attracted you to this castle that you work in?

It’s a really charged place. There was a big battle against the [Muslim] Saracen Empire in 732. Then this castle was built in the 10th century. It’s been completely abandoned for the last 50 years and I’ve been working for the past 15 years.
I love working on the memory of spaces. In fact, each space in the world keeps a trace of what’s happened before. And when I get to a space I feel deeply what’s happened there, as if I have a supernatural relation to the past. When I do graffiti, I really feel like I’m leaving a piece of my skin. I stick it on the wall. It’s like printing myself on the wall. The next day, thousands of people see this image. This personage that I leave works for me, my worker. It’s like I’m the CEO who works in the city and leaves his workers, his employees, who work for him like that.

Can you talk about your Florence Aubenas project?

I’m trying from now on to make my work more social, to make myself closer to the world, working on subjects that can touch people. That’s why I worked on the image of Florence Aubenas. She was kidnapped in Iraq in January 2005 and she was freed in June 2005. I began to work in the beginning of March putting portraits of her around the main office of Libération. Fifteen days later I received an email from the editor asking me to come by and explain why I was doing this. I told him that I did this to return Florence in a virtual manner, in the places she knew, places she was close to, where she lived.
After that, I put it up everywhere in Paris and people would stop their car and say, “Bravo.” The image of Florence Aubenas represented something to them. It’s the first time in my life that I got this interaction with the public. Generally when you do graffiti you’re insulted.

What follows is an interview with Florence Aubenas, conducted at the Paris offices of Libération in the summer of 2006. It was the first time Aubenas and le Rat had met.

Can you talk about the first time you encountered your image on the street?

Aubenas: When I returned [from Iraq], the first thing I wanted to do was return to the Libération office. I was going up the street and I saw from a distance a silhouette that reminded me of something, but I couldn’t tell what. And the closer I got, I had this strange feeling about it. When I got real close, I realized that the silhouette was me.

Did you know Blek le Rat before?

I didn’t know him until five minutes ago. What struck me about his design was, where did that image come from? Where was that photo taken? But I recognized myself, my mannerisms. It was me, without a doubt. It was very strange because I said to myself that maybe I knew this guy but I don’t know where—and how could he know this about me? Did something get erased from my mind when I was kidnapped? And only after, someone told me that he had only a photo of my face and had added the attitude with the bag from someone else [le Rat’s wife Sybille.] What’s weird is that it’s really me. Someone who had never seen me assembled this work that couldn’t be more me.

Is there graffiti in Iraq?

Yes, there is graffiti in Iraq. There is graffiti copied from the occidental world that we see on television. We see those that copy it. And there is graffiti completely Iraqi that means something in Iraq and is about Iraq. In certain cities, especially where there were a lot of massacres… during the time of Saddam Hussein, on an entire wall, was written the names of the people who had disappeared. And now that I think about it, at the same time that I was looking at this graffiti of the missing, [le Rat] was doing graffiti of me, the missing. True, it’s a strange coincidence.

What are you working on now?

Le Rat: For a year now I’ve been working on the poverty and the misery in Paris. It’s hard to believe there are thousands of homeless in Paris. What touched me the most is that I saw children beg. This was unimaginable 25 years ago, to see a child begging in the street in Paris. He was hiding his face, hanging his head down, and I was really touched by this image.
I’ve seen people lining up just to have something to eat in front of the railroad station every night. There are lines of 500 or 600 people. It’s absolutely incredible. This didn’t exist 20 years ago. It’s a whole new phenomenon. And we don’t have the right to abandon these people. We can’t continue like this, living in this incredible opulence, driving these cars, watching television, taking vacations, while half of the world is dying of hunger. If an artist is able to consecrate his work to a cause, it’s the best art that can be done. What could you ask more from an artist? Nothing. To me, art must serve a cause. Not a militant cause or political, but social.

Tell me about Alexander the Great.

Today in the 21st century, we don’t have a whole lot of adventures left. For me, working in the streets is a great adventure. Alexander the Great made a campaign all the way to Asia. He left a trace in every city he went through, with graffiti. But he also brought the Greek culture to India. I’d like to remake this tour, through Greece, Turkey, Iran, up to Afghanistan, turn around to go to Egypt, and thus work in each city where Alexander the Great had passed through, leaving images. This will be my biggest adventure.

When an artist expresses himself, I think all artists are like this: they’re broken in half, cut in half. There’s a schizophrenic sense where you reject the world. I reject totally the world in a certain way. I hate the world, but at the same time I need to be accepted by it and I need to love it at the same time—a kind of ambiguity. I know it doesn’t make sense, but I live it on the inside. When I put myself on the street, it’s a desire to be accepted and be loved but at the same time I reject this world that I hate.
After this interview, le Rat, his wife Sybille and son Alexander took Aubenas and the writer postering on the streets of Paris.


Interview
blek le rat
Age: 52 on the 15th of november

Where do you live?
about 30 miles from Paris for 10 years but i used to live in the city of Paris until i was 41 years old.

How long have you been creating street art?

Since 1981. At that time there was no graffiti in Paris except political graffiti. Also at that time it was really great to work because the cops did not care about you when you were making graffiti art. When they saw you they stopped their cars and asked you “what are you doing here, is it a political message ?” when the answer was” no it’s only art” they would leave.Now it’s another story with the cops.

What did you do last night?
Same thing as with you Charles I’m also working on canvasses and I have made twenty five of them in the two last months and the last night i looked at them all together to get an idea of the finished result.

What do you currently have in your pockets?
40 cents of euros

How did you get started in creating art for the street?

The first time i saw graffiti art was in the summer of 1971 in NYC and it took me ten years to put graffiti in streets in action.In 1981 I was student in architecture at the school of Beaux- arts in Paris and I worked as a volunteer in the suburb of Paris to look after children during the vacation. We used to buy paint and brushes for them to paint the walls of the house where we stored our materials and the children every day used to paint those walls with their hands and brushes. The children gave me the idea to do the same on the walls of Paris.At that time there was only two or three places in Paris to find aerosol paint.Those cans were really expensive, about 20 US dollars in 1981 for one can ,you can imagine! The first time i made graffiti I tried to make an imitation of an American Graff the result was completly disappointing .I did not have the style neither the technique of the american artists .So i decided to use another technique to make graffiti : “the stencil”.I knew that stencil was the technique used by the fascist groups during the second world war in Italy to promote Mussolini.I remember clearly in the early sixties having seen an almost erased portrait of Mussolini dated from the world war two that was made with stencil on the walls of Padova in Italy during a vacation with my parents.So the technique was found and now i had to go in the streets of Paris to make my own graffiti which was the most difficult to do for me. The first stencil i made was of some little rats running along the streets.Why rats?because rats are the only free animals living in cities, they are the last rebels of cities… I started to make figures in 1983 after having seen Hambleton’s shadows in Paris.

What other street artists do you most admire and why?
From the old school I really like Richard Hambleton .This American artist from NYC was the first street artist to export his work all over the world.It was really incredible to do that in the beginning of the 80’s ! This guy put his shadows in every city in Europe and so you could find them in Paris, London ,Roma ,Berlin etc .I never met him but i bought one of his shadow paintings on paper in Christie’s auction in NYC in 1990.

From the new school i sincerely like your work and your sense of art i think you are a very promissing artist not only in graffiti but in art in generally.

And as everybody I also like Banksy, he makes me fun and it’s real good to get fun sometimes.

What’s your favorite city, neighborhood, or block, to post and/or to see street art?

NYC is my favourite place to see graffiti.This city holds 30 years of memories about graffiti for me.NYC is the major city in the world for this kind of expression of art.I also like very much Berlin in Germany because this city looks like San Francisco in the seventies it was a a place of freedom where the people could do what they want to do and where the authorities tried to understand and to help the underground culture. Theres so much graffiti in that city compared to Paris it’s incredible.I don’t know a place like that ,right now in the world .

Now I don’t like Paris anymore for graffiti because there is too many people making graffiti. Sometimes they are good, sometimes they are not and most of them work only to get famous very quickly without having a real direction in their work.

What inspires you now?
As i told you before i’m working now on canvasses with stencils .I’m 50 years old now and it’s time for me now to leave a work not only in the streets but also painted on a medium other than walls.So i’m working now on every image which took an important place in my life during my last 40 years. The images which have punctuated my life, pictures of politics events, social events, music events and so forth…It’s a big and a long work.

What are you currently working on? Can you give us a sneak peak?
I’m currently and always working on the memory. The individual memory ,the memory of the places ,the memory of societies and so on. For exemple i worked two years ago in the city of Volubilis in Marocco which is a place built two thousands years ago by the Romans and i decided to put a picture of a little faun painted on paper with stencil in the ruins of Volubilis .The fawn was a little god visiting us during our dreams in the greek mythology.You can see the result on my web site.This work was incredible and i had the real impression when i did this work to reach eternity…
Sneak peak? sorry i don’t get this expression in english…

Marioneta de Papel

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