Monday, June 17, 2013

Blek Le Rat - Rat Poet - INTERVIEWS

(Archive Copy 2011) 

Blek Le Rat lets the rat out of the proverbial with Paul Andrew. His stencil work is featured this month in a survey exhibition at Melbourne's Metro Gallery.

In the art world it is a well known fact that long before stencil supremo Banksy made the global A-list and the art market stratosphere there was a humble Frenchman named Blek Le Rat who sprayed the way.

Today, this silvery 58 year-old family man is still stenciling city walls, still transgressing laws with poetic images and urgent social comment. Almost three decades after beginning these provocations “Le Rat” is finally receiving the recognition he deserves.

“I am so grateful for this man”, Le Blek says of Banksy in his melifluous Gallic voice, “ Banksy has helped me so much recently; his comment suggests a wise and respectful artist; he has opened doors”, reveals Le Rat while referring to that now famous Banksy quote - Every time I think I've painted something slightly original; I find out that Blek has done it as well; only twenty years earlier! And Le Blek adds that were it not for the Banksy comment, his own life's work would remain largely unknown outside of France and his role as a serious artist seriously discounted.

 “A personal history of graffiti art? In Philadelphia, for me at least, the beginnings were back in 1967, there was Cornbread, we believe he was the first to tag streets with his name. Two years later, Taki 183 was the first New Yorker to tag subways. Tagging caught on, exploding during the early 1970's. "

"There was nothing at all like this in France. In 1971, I was 21 and made my first trip to New York. I noticed crowns depicted above the tags. I was fascinated by them; but these people have no relationship to Kings or to royalty I thought. A friend told me tags were a means for marking out gang territory; war borders. For me graffiti art really began with Keith Haring. I discovered his day-glo graffiti in the late 1970's. Haring was the first to transform tagging into art.”

For Le Rat, the most vivid memory of all was not this 1971 trip to downtown New York or Haring's late 1970's fluoro style but an early childhood trip with his family to the picturesque town of Padova, Italy in 1961. “ It was here on the walls of the city where a series of faded brown stencils seized me. I was ten years old. I asked my father what these stencils were about. My father, a prisoner-of-war in Germany, explained that these images were made by Fascists during WW2. Portraits of Mussolini wearing a helmet- a war hero in profile. Propaganda, dismissed my father. They had survived all those years since the war. I kept this image in my mind for a long, long time.”

In 1981 Blek was an architecture student truly pissed off by the excessive wealth and trappings “paraded” by French culture and it's state, continuing it's long history of self-congratulatory self aggrandissement.“ We, the masses, were social rats. That's how it felt at the time. So many Parisians living life tough in poverty, in filth, yet the image projected of Paris; so glamorous, so rich. I was looking for an identity at the time, wanting to leave a trace, to be recognised for something, so remembering that Mussolini stencil I made a stencil of a rat; the shadow of a rat. For two years I stenciled only rats; millions maybe. People noticed them, they appreciated the repetition, the humour, the irony.”

Blek laughs, his gaze distant. 

“It's funny, people today in Melbourne, Paris, New York, Berlin; even Beijing, are still stenciling, it's illegal everywhere I go. Young people need to express themselves, their humour, their world view. I remember one night stenciling those rats when a police car pulled up. They asked me what I was doing. I am making art, I answered. Oh, they repeated; making art, almost embarrassed to have asked me; go on then, go right ahead they urged; art- we won't trouble you.”

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