Blek Le Rat, born1952, is a pioneering French graffiti artist who inspired hundreds of artists around the world with his stenciled style. He is frequently cited as a major influence of artists like Banksy and Space Invader, and through his work in Paris he established a style of urban art that quickly spread through Europe and eventually the United States. At the beginning of the 80s, he first brought pictures on Parisian walls with the help of stencils. He is regarded as the inventor of the Stencils in the context of Street Art.
Despite the enormous role he played in 1980s and 1990s street art, Blek le Rat kept a low profile through most of his career to avoid prison time, fines and public harassment. He struggled years before urban art was a somewhat acceptable genre, documenting his own works and trying to find ways to make a living as a professional artist. He set the stage for an artistic revolution through years of absolute obscurity.
Blek was born Xavier Prou in Paris and studied fine art and architecture at Beaux-Arts in Paris, graduating in 1982. Study of architecture introduced him to the urban landscape at the same time he was discovering a new world of politics and sociology of class. Before his graduation, Prou visited New York City and developed a fascination with the city’s street art. Upon returning to France, he worked with local teens in tenement buildings. When he saw them tagging the abandoned cabins, he decided to adopt graffiti to bring the new art form to Parisian streets. Prou began using the Blek le Rat alias, derived from an Italian comic called Blek le Roc. The artist had soon painted hundreds of rats around the city using stencils. Rats were an ideal subject because “they create fear, they are synonymous with invasion and they are the only wild animals apart from pigeons that live in the city.”
He turned to street art for the masses. He said, “If the people cannot come to the gallery, we bring the gallery to the people! Kids who would never go to a show see our work in the street and are inspired to express themselves through art rather than turning to vandalism or repressing their voices.”
His earliest piece was an oversize rat, which appeared all over Paris. RAT is an anagram for ART.
In the mid-1980s, David Hockney, an English artist who created life-sized crayon drawings, inspired Blek to try larger stencils. Blek is now often credited as the inventor of full-scale human character stencils.
The artist worked consistently through the 1990s and 2000s. French police revealed his birth name after arresting him in 1991, and since then, Blek has been arrested or harassed by police in the United States, Argentina and the UK. In recent years Blek’s work has become more political, focusing on the homeless, the environment, and other social causes. His posters of kidnapped French journalist Florence Aubenas helped raised public awareness of her situation, pressuring politicians and journalists to work harder for her release.
Blek saw his profile as a mainstream artist rising considerably over the past decade, partially due to Banksy’s popularity in contemporary art circles. In 2006, Blek showed his works in London’s Leonard Street Gallery, and since then, he has regularly presented gallery exhibitions in cities around the world. He celebrated his 30 year anniversary as a street artist at San Francisco’s 941 Geary Gallery in November of 2011. However, despite several exhibitions in 2012 and growing international acclaim, le Rat believes that his days as an artist are close to an end. Anyway, he is one of the most influential, important figures in urban art.