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Blek Le Rat, 'Father of the Street Stencil,' Thinking of L.A.

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Stencil street art is strategic in its placement and monochromatic imagery, allowing graphic arts to become guerilla responses to environmental and social conditions in one swift glance. The urban art form can be found in all major cities, but it thrives in Los Angeles. It didn't have to evolve much from its original source, Blek le rat, the French artist who began stenciling on Parisian walls in the 1970s and 1980s. With the growth of stenciled art in Los Angeles, not to mention around the world, it's important to consider why he's called the "Father of Stencil Graffiti."

Or, at least, to know that he came before Banksy (and a case could be made that Banksy directly lifted Blek Le Rat's style and execution).

Blek Le Rat's first repeated image was rodents roaming walls. "The rat is a rebel, the sole wild animal in the city," he said about his moniker in the L.A. Times in 2008. "They're smart, and they know exactly how to get around. There's another reason I like them: The word 'rat' is an anagram for 'art.'"

Blek le Rat visited New York during its more rebellious time, and returned to France. Not wanting to imitate that city's graffiti artists, he chose the stencil as his new form of unauthorized contemporary urban art. Writing on the Wall touched based with the artist to discuss his works and why he has L.A. on his mind.

Writing on the Wall: You say your life is shaped by the way culture was formed by different centuries. How does your work fall into the idea that culture is destiny?

Blek le rat: I wanted to say everyone culture is part of it's destiny.

Your education is in fine art and architecture. How does stencil art come into play as a response to public space and the building, as well a statement about art?

Using stencils was a simple way to paint in a short time on the walls. I studied etching, painting, lithography at the Ecole des Beaux Arts de Paris, which are different techniques than stenciling. I knew the technique of the stencil because I saw many on a trip to Italy in the 1960's. Some vestiges of Mussolini's propaganda painted on the walls of Padova with stencils; it was a vestige from World War II.

Courtesy of Blek le rat
Courtesy of Blek le rat

You had a show in Los Angeles in 2008. What was your impression of this region's street art?

Los Angeles is, in my opinion, one of most interesting cities in the USA when it comes to street art. Shepard Fairey's work in the streets of L.A. is certainly one of the reasons why the city is so important in the development of street art. I also painted along the canal (L.A. River) and discovered incredibly beautiful pieces in that place.

Has that impression changed? Or do you not seek out what others are doing by searching online, and prefer the street experience?

My impression has not changed. Shepard is the leader.

You once said, "On a conceptual level, we are really an extension of Pop Art," and that your work was influenced by David Hockney, among others. Does that strike you as personally fulfilling when you see the popularity of stenciled street art?

Yes it does. When I see another stencil, I feel like my statement about street, and stencil art, was heard by artists.

You must be shaking your head at some of the prices for works at auction.

Yes, I do, but you have to know that auction sales are often fake...

You do not have a heavy political message in your work. There is a gentle homage to life and art. You are not really about agitating others, are you?

I do not believe in politics anymore. When I was young I was really involved into political movement of the 1970's. I have been really disappointed with all political people from all over the world -- especially French politicians.

Courtesy of Blek le rat
Courtesy of Blek le rat

Last time I was in L.A., I painted an angel playing the violin in the streets. It was my homage to the city. L.A. is my preferred city in U.S.A.

Has your discourse changed from your first stencils installations?

With my first stencils, it was a statement to others artists saying: "Paint in the streets. This is the only solution if you want to be recognized as an artist, otherwise you will remain an unknown artist in your studio."

You have written that cinema was, and is, the first culture of the masses. What advice would you give the Los Angeles industry, aka Hollywood, as to what they represent to the world?

Cinema from Hollywood is a huge field of creation. As an artist I could work for several years only with the idea of cinema and it's history in Hollywood.

Since you consider this time a turning point of visual diffusion, what are we becoming, as a culture?

In one hand it's a global culture with people using the same tools to spread ideas all over the world. On the other hand, culture is peculiar to each country.

Courtesy of Blek le rat
Courtesy of Blek le rat

Images courtesy of Blek le rat (Xavier Prou).

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