Check out the latest issue of Swindle Magazine for Jon’s article and interview about Blek Le Rat:
Long before there was “street art” as we now know it, there was Blek le Rat. He was one of the first graffiti writers in Europe; one of the first people to use stencils to make public art on the street; one of the first (if not the first) to break away from the dominance of New York graffiti style; and one of the first to use icons instead of writing his name. He has been an inspiration to artists all over the world, from Jay BadBC to Ozeas Duarte to Shepard Fairey to Banksy (whose work is often an homage to Blek’s iconography).
I first met le Rat in the summer of 2005. I was filming Bomb It, a documentary about the global explosion of graffiti culture. For this film, director of photography and producer Tracy Wares and I traveled to Europe, South Africa, Brazil and Japan. While in Paris, we tracked down le Rat in the French countryside (the exact location of which le Rat wanted to keep hidden) and sprung for the 300-mile train ride to see him.
I spoke to le Rat in the abandoned 10th century castle that he had appropriated- in true punk style- some 15 years prior. He turned out to be a well-dressed, seemingly innocuous man, and a passionate and articulate artist.
His castle was a wonderful backdrop for his stunning stencil creations. Le Rat worked on his art in the castle and lived nearby with his wife Sybille, a talented photographer who has published several books about stenciling and graffiti, and his 12-year-old son Alexander, who had been dragged out on bombing missions with his parents ever since he could walk.
A year later in the summer of 2006, I interviewed le Rat again, this time in Paris. He was dressed in the same button-down oxford shirt and khaki pants as the year before. We had arranged for him to meet with Florence Aubenas, the Belgian journalist for the French newspaper Libération who, with her translator Hanoun Al-Saadi was kidnapped in Iraq in 2005. They were released five months later. During Aubenas’ captivity, le Rat instituted a poster campaign for the journalist, putting images of her likeness around the Paris offices of Libération and all throughout the city.
What follows are excerpts from these interviews- some of which will appear in the documentary I directed and its sequels- but some of which are only revealed on the pages of SWINDLE.
Could you introduce yourself?
I am Blek, Blek le Rat. I am a French graffiti artist. I was one of the first artists to use stencils for an artistic purpose in Paris in the beginning of the 1980s in ’81 exactly. At first, I put rats and I made them run along the wall. I wanted to do a rat invasion. I put thousands all over Paris.
How did you come up with the name Blek le Rat?
Blek le Roc [Blek the Rock] was a comic strip that I used to read when I was a kid. Blek le Roc was a fur trader or a trapper in the USA fighting against the British invasion army during the [sic] Boston Tea Party era. I used to love this comic strip, [which was] actually written and drawn by an Italian guy in the ’60s. When I started to make graffiti I took this name of Blek and I changed “the Rock” to “the Rat” because I used to paint rats in the street of Paris and also because in “rat” you can find “art”.
The rat is the only free animal in the city. It’s an animal that people fear and has a strong history of bringing disease. When rats invade a town, it is bad.
At the time, in 1981, there wasn’t any graffiti in Paris. The first time that I saw graffiti ever in my life done in an artistic way, not just to write “shit” on the bathroom, was in New York City in 1971. When I went down in the street to do graffiti, I wanted to do American pieces like I had seen in New York. [But] I told myself, “No, I mustn’t do that.” In the environment of my city, in the architecture of the city where I was born, it doesn’t look like America. Paris doesn’t look like New York. I had to do something completely different. I wanted to bring forth my own version of graffiti and my own culture. For that I did stencils because the stencil is something very Latin. Something very French, Italian, Spanish- something very, very Latin.
The fascists in Italy used a lot of stenciling during WWII. They would do Mussolini’s portrait. I had seen this when I was young, and I remembered that when I was considering how to interface with the street. The South Americans have also used stenciling in the 1970s to do propaganda.
The first stencil ever made in the world is the hand in the cave, of the first men. They mixed the paint with water and put it in their mouth and spat the paint on the wall. That was the first stencil.
What was your first larger work besides the rats?
My first instinct was to be known. I had a desire for recognition- that people know who is Blek. The problem with cities is anonymity. We’re alone in the city. You know that if you leave your image in the streets, the next day 50,000 people will have seen your image.
The first major portrait I did was of an old man, like a bum, because there are a lot of bums in the city. His mouth was wide open, wore glasses, hands behind his back. We had an impression that he was screaming in the streets. I wanted to say was “I exist”. I exist through this bum.
Little by little I stretched out all over France, then Germany, Spain, Italy, New York, London, everywhere- almost everywhere in the world. I’m going to China, where I’ll put some on The Great Wall. I work a bit everywhere in the world. When I’m in a city, I look at the walls a lot- more than the people. What’s written on the walls reflects the society that lives in the city. [It] evokes the city. People write, paint, express their passions, their anger, their love, their fear of dying, on the walls.
Can you talk about your problems with the police?
I had legal problems in 1991, had a trial and it lasted a year. I had to pay fines for 10 years of graffiti in one year. I don’t paint on the wall anymore because if I get caught by the police painting a wall, I’ll go to prison. I have no desire to go to prison. So, I stick the posters, it’s less dangerous.
But if the police arrive I’ll say, “Excuse me, sir, I’ll take it off and I won’t do it again.” In France, you can be fined 50,000 euros (about $66,000) for graffiti. [If] you put up a poster and get caught, they count the number of posters and you get a fine for every one.
You mentioned something about dog shit?
I love Paris very much. I’m very attached to her. But Paris is the city of dog shit. There is not another city in the world where the people don’t clean the dog shit. In London they clean the dog shit, in New York they clean the dog shit, in Los Angeles they clean the dog shit. In Paris- no. The contradiction is that to stick a poster on the wall [is] illegal. You can go to prison. You can pay a huge fine. But for the dog shit, it’s free.
So why are people so against graffiti?
The problem is that 40% of people like graffiti and the other 60% don’t like it. But the 40% who like [it] don’t want it on their wall- that’s the problem. Graffiti is somehow an aggression towards the wall. You assault people by leaving an image. It’s not in people’s mindset that an artist can intervene in the city to create. It will be. We saw how many years it took surrealism to be accepted, or pointillism, Van Gogh. In art things take a long time.
How do you feel about the growing relationship between graffiti and the art world?
The problem with galleries is that 99% of urban artists use urban art as a stepping stone into the galleries. It’s a fatal error because in galleries they’re seen by 40 people, in museums they’re seen by 10 people, but in the streets they’re seen by 100,000 people. And that’s the integrity of an artist’s work: to be seen. Not be sold or to be recognized in a museum- but to be seen by the world.
What attracted you to this castle that you work in?
It’s a really charged place. There was a big battle against the [Muslim] Saracen Empire in 732. Then this castle was built in the 10th century. It’s been completely abandoned for the last 50 years and I’ve been working for the past 15 years.
I love working on the memory of spaces. In fact, each space in the world keeps a trace of what’s happened before. And when I get to a space I feel deeply what’s happened there, as if I have a supernatural relation to the past. When I do graffiti, I really feel like I’m leaving a piece of my skin. I stick it on the wall. It’s like printing myself on the wall. The next day, thousands of people see this image. This personage that I leave works for me, my worker. It’s like I’m the CEO who works in the city and leaves his workers, his employees, who work for him like that.
Can you talk about your Florence Aubenas project?
I’m trying from now on to make my work more social, to make myself closer to the world, working on subjects that can touch people. That’s why I worked on the image of Florence Aubenas. She was kidnapped in Iraq in January 2005 and she was freed in June 2005. I began to work in the beginning of March putting portraits of her around the main office of Libération. Fifteen days later I received an email from the editor asking me to come by and explain why I was doing this. I told him that I did this to return Florence in a virtual manner, in the places she knew, places she was close to, where she lived.
After that, I put it up everywhere in Paris and people would stop their car and say, “Bravo!” The image of Florence Aubenas represented something to them. It’s the first time in my life that I got this interaction with the public. Generally when you do graffiti you’re insulted.
What follows is an interview with Florence Aubenas, conducted at the Paris offices of Libération in the summer of 2006. It was the first time Aubenas and le Rat had met.
Can you talk about the first time you encountered your image on the street?
Aubenas: When I returned [from Iraq], the first thing I wanted to do was return to the Libération office. I was going up the street and I saw from a distance a silhouette that reminded me of something, but I couldn’t tell what. And the closer I got, I had this strange feeling about it. When I got real close, I realized that the silhouette was me.
Did you know Blek le Rat before?
I didn’t know him until five minutes ago. What struck me about his design was, where did that image come from? Where was that photo taken? But I recognized myself, my mannerisms. It was me, without a doubt. It was very strange because I said to myself that maybe I knew this guy but I don’t know where- and how could he know this about me? Did something get erased from my mind when I was kidnapped? And only after, someone told me that he had only a photo of my face and had added the attitude with the bag from someone else [Blek’s wife Sybille.] What’s weird is that it’s really me. Someone who had never seen me assembled this work that couldn’t be more me.
Is there graffiti in Iraq?
Yes, there is graffiti in Iraq. There is graffiti copied from the occidental world that we see on television. We see those that copy it. And there is graffiti completely Iraqi that means something in Iraq and is about Iraq. In certain cities, especially where there were a lot of massacres- during the time of Saddam Hussein, on an entire wall, was written the names of the people who had disappeared. And now that I think about it, at the same time that I was looking at this graffiti of the missing, [le Rat] was doing graffiti of me, the missing. True, it’s a strange coincidence.
What are you working on now?
Le Rat: For a year now I’ve been working on the poverty and the misery in Paris. It’s hard to believe there are thousands of homeless in Paris. What touched me the most is that I saw children beg. This was unimaginable 25 years ago, to see a child begging in the street in Paris. He was hiding his face, hanging his head down, and I was really touched by this image.
I’ve seen people lining up just to have something to eat in front of the railroad station every night. There are lines of 500 or 600 people. It’s absolutely incredible. This didn’t exist 20 years ago. It’s a whole new phenomenon. And we don’t have the right to abandon these people. We can’t continue like this, living in this incredible opulence, driving these cars, watching television, taking vacations, while half of the world is dying of hunger. If an artist is able to consecrate his work to a cause, it’s the best art that can be done. What could you ask more from an artist? Nothing. To me, art must serve a cause. Not a militant cause or political, but social.
Tell me about Alexander the Great.
Today in the 21st century, we don’t have a whole lot of adventures left. For me, working in the streets is a great adventure. Alexander the Great made a campaign all the way to Asia. He left a trace in every city he went through, with graffiti. But he also brought the Greek culture to India. I’d like to remake this tour, through Greece, Turkey, Iran, up to Afghanistan, turn around to go to Egypt, and thus work in each city where Alexander the Great had passed through, leaving images. This will be my biggest adventure.
When an artist expresses himself, I think all artists are like this: they’re broken in half, cut in half. There’s a schizophrenic sense where you reject the world. I reject totally the world in a certain way. I hate the world, but at the same time I need to be accepted by it and I need to love it at the same time- a kind of ambiguity. I know it doesn’t make sense, but I live it on the inside. When I put myself on the street, it’s a desire to be accepted and be loved but at the same time I reject this world that I hate.
After this interview, le Rat, his wife Sybille and son Alexander took Aubenas and the writer postering on the streets of Paris.