“As an artist I do not think that we truly invent anything at this point. For me it is more about focusing on a memory that I may have had, than actually inventing anything. People recreate what they have seen but with their own vision. I do not believe in the painter who says I invent this or that. It does not exist anymore. It is just how you do it that makes it different than others. I can say I have taken inspiration from many places in my life.” – Blek le Rat
Blek Le Rat was born Xavier Prou in the suburbs of Boulogne-Billancourt, Paris in 1952. His name comes from the comic book Blek Le Roc, (about American trappers during the American Revolutionary War). During the 1980s he became one of the first street artists in Paris (Prou says he was the second to make political street art in Paris, after Zloty Kamien), and today he remains a pioneer on and off the streets.
His works of art are highly coveted in the art market, going for tens of thousands of pounds, he has given talks about the philosophy of Street Art for The Tate Modern. Dubbed by some as ‘Banquesy’ (the French Banksy), he is more frequently hailed as ‘the godfather’ of Street Art and guerilla art.
Blek Le Rat’s Style
Blek Le Rat visited New York in the early 1970s, and was inspired by the work – both graffiti and street art – he saw there. However Blek didn’t feel the style suited the city of his birth, so he developed a style more in tune with Paris, inspired by his knowledge of classical art and the influence of Richard Hambleton’s large –scale human figures. Of classical art Prou said: “I think it is also important to study art and history of art because it is a pleasure to learn of how artists in the past have worked.” Other influences of his include Pop Artists (Pop Art has been a major influence on Street Art) David Hockney and Andy Warhol.
Blek Le Rat’s iconic stencil-style emerged early in his career, in part, after an incident with the police. In 1991 he had been stenciling a replica of Madonna and Child, by Caravaggio when he was arrested. From that moment on Prou decided to exclusively use pre-stenciled works, as the reduced time it took to apply his works to the walls, also reduced the likelihood of getting caught. The stenciled style he utilized drew on Prou’s training at art school in etching and print making, as well as a trip to Italy: “When I was a kid I made a trip with my parents to Padua, Italy, and I saw graffiti there made by the Fascists. Propaganda stencilled on walls. I remember asking my father about them. The faces of Mussolini stencilled in the street stayed with me.”, Prou told the Independent.
Blek Le Rat’s Rats
Prou describes rats as “the only free animal in the city”, he uses the name ‘rat’ as an anagram for ‘art’. His now-infamous rats date back to some of his earliest artwork on the streets of Paris in 1981. He has said of the rats: “Paris is full of rats, but you never see them. I wanted to say to Parisians, ‘Your city is very beautiful, but don’t forget that your basements are full of vermin’…”
Blek Le Rat and Banksy
Although Prou says he has never met Banksy, their relationship over the years has wavered between mutual admiration and rivalry, a line which, over recent years, has become increasingly unstable. Initially, Prou was the undisputed, underrated influence on Banksy, as Banksy said: “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.” Prou mirrored Banksy’s warm sentiments: “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. I feel what he is doing in London is similar to the rock movement in the Sixties.”
Banksy sent Prou some of his work, Prou participated in Banksy’s underground Street Art exhibition, Cans Festival, in 2008, which included the worlds biggest names in street art (such as >Mr Brainwash and Faile); and in an effort to collaborate, in 2011 Prou was spotted adding to a mural begun the previous year by Banksy in the Mission District, San Francisco.
However, over the years, their relationship has become increasingly strained, though Blek acknowledges Banksy’s influence on his success, “It’s difficult because on the one hand I’m very happy: without Banksy I would not have the position I occupy in the street art movement. I’m recognised in the US, UK, Australia and around the world. It helps me make a living. It’s great!” but he also admits reservations about the artist, “But on the other hand, I [have] seen how he manipulates the art market. I can see that we probably needed someone who could do this for street art, like Damien Hirst did for conceptual art, so it’s very interesting. But it does make me uncomfortable.”
In most recent history, The Independent reported uncomfortable email exchanges between the two, “The last email he sent me said, “Blek, are you making fun of me? Stop saying that I take my ideas from you’.”
And in the documentary Grafitti Wars, Prou was filmed saying: “When I see Banksy making a man with a child or Banksy making rats, of course I see immediately where he takes the idea. I do feel angry. When you’re an artist you use your own techniques. It’s difficult to find a technique and style in art so when you have a style and you see someone else is taking it and reproducing it, you don’t like that. I’m not sure about his integrity. Maybe he has to show his face now and show what kind of guy he is.”
How the artists mutual relationship will develop, or decline, remains to be seen. (We still hope for a collaboration though).
Blek Le Rat’s Most Expensive Works
Once upon a time, Prou’s works were hastily painted over or washed off walls, now, on and off the street, Prou’s works garner enormous praise and, fairly high prices. His most expensive work to date is, Paint Ball Game, which was sold for $45,000; after that, Death of Macho, which was sold for $42,000 at Cornette De Saint Cyr Paris in 2011.
One of his most famous works, Danseuse no 2 (inspired by Degas’ ballet dancers) was sold at Aguttes Auction house in Lyon for $36,000 in 2011.