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AN INTERVIEW WITH BLEK LE RAT



NEW INTERVIEW


After attending the private view of Blek Le Rat's new solo show "The Return Of The Rat" at Woodbury House last month. We were eager to get some time with Xavier, to understand more about his story and his thoughts on how urban art has developed over the years and how he feels it will evolve in the future.



1. OBSSESSED - What first inspired you to become a street artist, and how did you develop your distinctive style?


BLEK LE RAT:


"I started in 1981 in Paris. I first saw street art in NY in 1972 during a trip that I made there. I discovered at that time, all the graffiti, all the early school graffiti. It was a shock to me, as it didn't exist in Europe at that time, that kind of expression. So I was really shocked by that, what I saw in New York. I asked my friend Larry "what does this mean, why are people doing this? Even Larry, who was living in New York, said "I don't know?". Nobody understood at that time, in 1972. So, it started to be clearer for me, when I read in a newspaper an article written by Norman Miller in 1973/74, about the graffiti in New York, he explained in the article what was going on there. It took me 10 years to digest what I saw in New York, so it took a long time. I started 10 years after. I didn't want to imitate American graffiti because Paris is very different from New York. I was studying fine art and architecture, so I knew the technique of stencil, it's a very old technique, so I started to make some stencils in Paris because I didn't want to imitate American graffiti. Paris was full of rats, it's still full of Rats now, in Paris it's absolutely terrible. So I started to put rats in Paris, and after a while people started to ask "who is the guy that makes the rats?" So it started like that.


(Blek Le Rat - Shadowman, 2023)


In 1983, Richard Hambleton came to Paris. He was the first graffiti artist to export his work outside of the United States. It was the first time a street artist worked in Europe. I saw his work in Paris in 1983 and I was again shocked.....and I thought it was really amazing, this shadow on the wall, with a splash of paint....It was huge and very strong. So I decided to make a large stencil at that time. So I am the result of many combinations, before me. So I didn't invent anything you know, in street art, but I just reproduced what I saw, but I have my own skill and my own life, so I put my own life and my own skill in my street art but I only the result of what I see before"



2. OBSSESSED - You have been active as a street artist since the 1980's. How do you think the street art scene has changed over the years?


BLEK LE RAT:


"Incredible. You know, I can tell you and it's true, again, when I stated in 1981. In the United States, graffiti art was already popular, but in Europe it was not, but I knew, absolutely knew at that time, in 1981, that this movement of graffiti art would be huge one day.


It's a huge movement, it's the most important movement of art throughout time. when you compare with other movements like pop art, like abstract, it's a huge movement. It's absolutely incredible. So I knew the development of this movement would be huge but not huge like that. It's absolutely global, even in China, Africa, South American, everywhere, everywhere.


I gave a lot of my life to this movement, a long part of my life to this moment, so it counts a lot to me that this movement is developing. I am pretty sure that the 21st century will be the movement of urban art. I don't mean graffiti or stencil specifically, I mean urban art as a complete genre. For an artist it is great to show our own work on the streets, when you know the next day, thousands and thousands of people will see your work. So it is absolutely the best way to become famous and to show your work. So I am pretty sure that the 21st century will be the century of urban art"


(Blek Le Rat - Leak Street London 2023)



3. OBSSESSED - Your work often features political or social messages. What do you hope to achieve with your art, and how do you choose the themes you address?


BLEK LE RAT:


"It's more social than political, I am not involved in politics. So it's really more social. I want to touch people who don't go to museums or galleries. I want to touch people like that, when I am working in the streets. So it's really more social.


I don't have a special political message, because I don't believe in politics anymore now, I am 72 years old. So I don't believe in politics. I believe in social statements, like to work for the people who live on the streets. I remember in 1995 a French journalist was kidnapped in Iraq, so I made a big propaganda for her in Paris, because no one was talking about her. I realised at that time that the impact was huge through the media. The media started to worry about her after my propaganda. I realised at the same time that the impact of graffiti art can be absolutely huge, if you have a message"


(Blek Le Rat - Ballerina)


We then broke away from the questions as Blek noticed some of our art collection in our studio. We began to list the different artist we had in our collection, until we mentioned David Hockney's name. Here's what Blek had to say:


BLEK LE RAT:


"You know I started to make graffiti because of David Hockney because I saw a movie in 1974, he made a movie called "The Bigger Splash" in California. In the movie he was painting, with a brush, a character on the wall of an apartment in LA. Again, it was a big shock and I said "oh, that's great, to paint on a wall". I really love David Hockney, he was one of my best artist from my youth, you know when I was young. I discovered him when I was about 22 years old and I really love his work"


(David Hockney - The Bigger Splash 1967)


4. OBSSESSED - Many people consider you to be one of the pioneers of the street art movement. How do you feel about this legacy, and do you see yourself as an influencer for future generations of street artists?


BLEK LE RAT:


"I am very pleased of course, yeh, very pleased. For an artist to stay after death is very important, you know. It's very important to leave something for the world, for the people. So I am very pleased that this movement of stencil graffiti is developing and evolving in this time. So I am very pleased. I was not the first street artist but I have made my mark on the evolution of street art.


(Blek Le Rat X Sybille Prou collaboration)



5. OBSSESSED - You have also worked as a graphic designer and illustrator. How does your street art influence your other creative work, and vice versa?


BLEK LE RAT:


"No, I am not good at that kind of thing. I am specialised in what I am doing. When people ask me to design some shoes, I'm not good, so usually I refuse. I know my capabilities


My dream would be to be a sculpturer, I really love the work of an American artist called Mark Jenkins who makes sculptures in the street. It's great. I'm not a sculpturer but I would love to learn.....It's too late now but in the past, I would have love to of learned".


(Mark Jenkins)



6. OBSSESSED - Your art has been displayed in galleries and museums around the world. How do you feel about the intersection of street art and the art world establishment?


BLEK LE RAT:


"I think we need it. We need it because when you work in the street, you know that your work is ephemeral, it doesn't stay for a long time. It only stays for a few weeks or a month but to have a relationship with a galleries or a museum. It's very, very important for the memory of what happened before in the street. For example, we don't have anything from the 60's in New York or Philadelphia. We don't have a piece of what happened. So I think it is important to show our work through different platforms and mediums. Like canvas, like walls, many different ways to show the street artwork in galleries or in museums. I think it is really really important about the memory, it's a memory about what happened before in the street.



Some people approached us to make money with the street art, which is free in the street. It's absolutely free in the street, we make a present to the people in the street but on the other side we are human beings. We need to eat, we need to live, so it is normal in my humble opinion, to have a relationship with an art establishment.



7. OBSSESSED - Would you every consider collaborating with another artist from a completely different art genre?


BLEK:


"Yes of course, I would love to. It's absolutely the future maybe of this movement, collaborating with others. The street art is very personal, we are artists and we work alone by night, we spray in the street alone or with a friend but we don't make a lot of collaboration like a project, its pretty rare. I think it could also be the evolution of this movement though the collaboration with different people who don't use the same technique.


I met Mark Jenkins 10 years ago , we had a good relationship together. So yes, for example, with Mark Jenkins or with Banksy, I hope so.



I then stated that I personally felt that a collaboration between Blek and Banksy may could happen, given the praise which Banksy gave Blek in the early 2000's


"Every time I think I have painted something slightly original; I find out that Blek has done it too, only Blek did it 20 years earlier" (Banksy)



BLEK LE RAT:


"Yes, this was very nice. It's a great quote. I would never of imagined something like that. coming from him. I was very please and touched when he made this quote in 2006, long time ago. He helped me a lot because he put this movement of graffiti art at a really big level, a huge level.


This was a testament to how gracious and humble Blek is, even after everything is has accomplished and what he has done for the urban art scene. It would be very easy for Blek to claim a lot the credit for this movement or to put down artists which have adopted the stencil technique after him but that's not Blek.


Blek is a man for the movement, the people and for the love of the game. His passion, love and charm still burns strong and he clearly still has plenty more to give to the scene.



8. OBSSESSED - What advice would you give to aspiring street artists who are just starting out, and how do you think the street art scene will continue to evolve in the coming years?


BLEK LE RAT:


"Don't get caught by the police! The problem with street art, it that it is illegal all over the world. So it's a huge problem but at the same time it gives you the passion and the stress to do it because it is not easy to paint in the street during the night when you know some people don't like it, they can get aggressive with you in the street, the police can arrest you, so it is very dangerous, it is not easy at all to make graffiti art.


I was in court in 1990 in France, so I know what kind of problems you can have and it's not funny.



I would say to the young artists, go in the streets, show you work, because it's the best way to get known, it's the best way to show your work, what you are doing, what you are thinking to the other people but be careful not to get caught by the police, that's very important!"


Some people have never been caught, I believe Banksy has never been caught by the police but I have been caught about twenty or thirty times. So maybe I am not too good at this!


I would also say to the young people, the best way to show your work, the best way to accomplish your work and your way of thinking, your message. Is to go in the street and to work in the street and to show the people your work. For a young guy working in the studio alone, it's so difficult when you're an artist alone in your studio and you work alone and you show you work only to your family and your friends and you try to have a connection with galleries but it is very difficult when you are a young artist to show your work to a gallery.


So the best way is to go in the streets, in the urban space.



(A young Blek Le Rat)


So I would say "Go in the street...Do it....It's not easy but do it!"


I don't know how the art scene will continue to evolve actually, but I am absolutely sure that some people with find another way to express himself. Like Space Invader he found another way to express himself through the moziac. Shepard Fairy or Banksy, all those people found another way to express themselves. So I am sure some new artists, some guys maybe in China, maybe in Africa or maybe in, I don't know but somewhere a guy will find another expression and it's going to be a huge thing for 20 years and everybody will talk about that. I am sure about that.



9. OBSSESSED - What is next for BLEK?


BLEK LE RAT:


Working with Woodbury House, it was a big success, a really big success. Actually I never had such huge success in my life with a show. Woodbury House left me to work as I wanted to work. They didn't tell me before for example, you have to small paintings because they are more sellable. No, they left me free to work as I wanted to work. So I could work on the large pieces. I love to work on large pieces.


So my plan is to work with them, to concentrate my work with Woodbury House and that's it.


(Picture curtesy of Woodbury House)


We then found out from WH that there is another Blek show in the pipeline for later on in the year, so that's something to certainly keep an eye out for. We went to the last show and it was hands down, the best solo show of 2023 so far.


It's great that Woodbury House, were able to partner up with Blek and get the stencil godfather to return to London! From speaking to both WH and Blek, we could tell that both parties have requirements for the people they both work with. Blek is a classic French free spirit, that should not be controlled or steered in anyway and that's exactly what WH did.....Appreciated Blek's process, beliefs and wants and what transpired was an incredible show which Blek stated brought him the most success he has ever experienced for a solo show.


The guys at WH are an amazing group and true fans of art and it's history. We feel like the right people to shine a well deserved firm light on Blek, to educate the scene and the public about the living legend that is Blek Le Rat. WH are very selective about who they work with and represent, giving visitors and collectors a more focused exhibition which really takes you into the world and history of the artist and not simply slapping artists work on the wall without a substantial story behind the work.


We would like to thank the Woodbury House them as well as the Blek Le Rat team (thank you Sybille for translating where needed!) and we can not wait for Blek's next instalment of work!


Blek / Obsessed (Private view at Woodbury House "The Return Of The Rat" show (2023)

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