Blek Le Rat

If ever there’s time for self-reflection, it’s a birthday. It’s a time to acknowledge your birth—your very existence. And then, for some, it’s an opportunity to celebrate a self-inflicted rebirth. 60 years ago Xavier Prou, a boy who would later go on to study at one of the finest French art schools, Ecole de Beaux-Arts, hit the planet. 30 years ago, stenciling life-size figures on the streets of Paris and leaving running rodents across city walls, Blek le Rat was born. His name is an anagram of the word ‘art’ and is indeed a nod to the gritty city creature. But far from his underground beginnings, Blek has since become internationally known and his ideas have been replicated in streets around the world. This living legend, the godfather of the most unassuming medium which has since gone mainstream, comes to San Francisco for the solo show 60/30 celebrating both of these birthdays – while launching an entirely new retrospective book from Arts Publishing Ltd. (see it here)

The pioneer exhibition space 941 Geary hosts Blek in his largest and most historically significant show. Warholian spoke with Blek about the progression of street art, how times have changed the art form and how the art form has changed the times.

“I very much like San Francisco” he tells me in a lyrical French accent through the metallic ping of a digital skype call. “I expect to meet a lot of people and explain my travels. It’s very strange because when I started 30 years ago, I’d never have imagined I’d be celebrating an anniversary in San Francisco. The US was always for me, a kind of dream.”

A dream that first hit him when he visited the US in 1971. As a young student at Ecole des Beaux-Arts a friend urged him to come to New York City to make his own artistic discoveries. In the most unlikely of places, Blek was struck by the graffiti in the subway and simply could not understand the people behind the city scrawl. He and his friend dismissed them as crazy.

That same year the New York Times published an interview with TAKI 183, one of the very first NYC taggers—really the first attempt by mainstream media to delve into the world of graffiti. It intrigued Blek even further. This was completely new.

“We did not know it was the beginning of an art movement,” he tells me.

Still, the only form of graffiti he had seen was political in nature, or else a territorial marking of one’s name or affiliation. Something was yet to be discovered. He returned to Paris and for ten years he contemplated this until, one day, he went out to make street art. He became Blek le Rat.

“In the 80s you could work for a long time without being known.” He remembers that there was a sense of anonymity, that artists like Richard Hambleton, who has been referred to as the “forgotten father of street art,” was simply a purist.

But the Internet changed all that. Blek explains that in one second, millions can see your work all over world. Back in 1983 and 1984 Blek’s work began appearing around the world because he was traveling and stenciling life-size characters around the world. Tweaking a phrase from Warhol himself, Blek le Rat explains, “you can be famous in 15 minutes.” For him, street art is still about the democratization of art itself. It’s an accessible social and political statement that, at one point, was rarely seen so openly.

Today, he feels we are at a turning point in its progression. While, on one hand street art can be totally free, he dryly explains, “a Banksy can go for $200,000 at auction.”

In this explosion of street art, he feels maybe some people are getting lost in the amount and can’t tell what is good and what isn’t. “Its good that this movement exists, but with the number of artists around the world using the same techniques, it’s also dangerous. I’m afraid people will get bored,” he laughs.

Despite the changing times, Blek will never stop making street art because he admits, “that’s the only thing I know exactly how to do.”

So come to 941 Geary and see exactly what Blek does so well. And be sure to keep an eye out for the works that Blek will be putting up around the city. He’s too old to make illegal things, he tells me, but still gets sincere satisfaction knowing that when he leaves behind an image, he leaves behind a piece of himself.

“A street artist always knows a part of him stays in a place where he put it.” And with that, Blek le Rat celebrates 60/30.

– written by Aimee Dewing, with photos by Michael Cuffe for Warholian [Warholian]


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