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HOME arrow FEATURES arrow Artist Interviews arrow Blek Le Rat Interview
Blek Le Rat Interview E-mail
Written by Manuel Bello   
Wednesday, 02 April 2008

© 1989 Angels

Think back to the year 1981, some of us were still pissing ourselves, or not even born. Rick Springfield was singing Jesse's Girl, Blonde was rapping to Rapture, Regan was doing some acting in the White House and Blek Le Rat was painting the streets of Paris. Unknowingly becoming one of the first pioneer stencil artist of the modern street art movement. Often overlooked by more well known media savvy stencil artists, Blek Le Rat was clearly behind many of the styles we see in the streets today. Although much of Blek's early work was in the streets of Paris, It was not long before he was traveling the globe and leaving street pieces at every stop, and he still is today. -Manuel Bello

© 1983 Irish Man in Protest

How would you describe Blek Le Rat?

Blek Le Rat is me, I am completely inside myself. (laughs) But seriously, as an artist I have always wanted to reach someone. When I was young I would dream of being a pop star. I came to New York in 1971 and it was during the hippy times. The times of Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. After being exposed to that I really wanted to be a pop star but as you can see that did not happen. Instead I became an artist. What can I say, I have a normal life, I do not go out very often. I have a wife and a child. I am focusing on my work a lot. I don't take drugs, no wine, no alcohol. Just a completely regular guy who happens to do art in the streets.

© 1986 self portait

What was it like growing up in Paris in the years following World War II?

Life in those days was not so easy. My life has been not so easy either, not because my parents were bad. My parents were very nice people and always remained together, although my father went through some difficult times. I was always very bad in school. I had a very hard time, some bad memories as a kid. My family life was different than most. My mother was Chinese, my father was born French, my grandmother was Jewish. So I came from a very different mix of cultures. There were many internal conflicts because of the differences. As a child you really do not understand this, it was not until I was 17-18 years old that I began to understand. Before that I was just a child. My father was a solder, he was born in 1914 during World War I. When he was 20 he went into the army, went into the second World War as a solder. As I said, my grandmother was Jewish, but fortunately my father was not raised up in a Jewish manner. He was captured and a German solder came to him and told him to drop his pants and show his parts to see if he was a Jew. Because he denied being a Jew (for obvious reasons) and based on what the German solder saw, he was not killed. Then, when I was 7 he went off to war in Algeria and when he returned he was completely destroyed. His will was broken and he was never the same.

© 2003 No more war, Berlin

What was the interest in art and what lead you to stencil work?

I had a very good friend who was from New York, and he told me that I must go to New York. He said for me it would be such a big discovery. You must remember this was 1971 in France, just 20 years after the war. Life at that time in France was very poor and there was not much going on. I traveled to New York and was really impressed by the graffiti art. Seeing the writing in the subway and a signature with a crown, I said to my friend Larry, "what is that, what does it mean?" Larry told me "I do not know, those people are insane." Keep in mind he too was an artist but he did not understand it either. At the time I was a student of architecture in Paris, it took me ten years to finish school. It also took me ten years to realize that graffiti art was very very important. At that time Basquiat and Keith Haring were not known in France, in the States maybe, but not in France. I had in mind the graffiti from New York and I knew that something was happening in New York by that time. I told my friend J.R. in Paris about the writing in the subway and the streets of New York and he said "That is a fucking great idea." In the beginning we tried to do American pieces but it did not work, we did not have the style. Also, the spray can paint was very expensive in France and we were very cheap with the paint, you know! It was impossible to do something beautiful. I also had this memory from a trip to Italy as a child and the face of Mussolini was stenciled on the walls of Paloma. I remember saying to my father "what is that?" He explained to me that during the war they would do these stencils as a form of propaganda. So with that in mind I told J.R. we are going to make stencils. Mostly because we did not want to stay a long time on the streets because of the police, this was something we could do very quickly. After some time I realized the police did not care. I made hundreds of rats and faces and J.R. made a banana. We would both sign Blek. This was the early part of 1981. We stayed together maybe one year and then J.R.'s wife told him not to go outside anymore and paint this crap, so I was left and I took the name Blek.

© 1988 Napoli

Can you tell me a little bit about the castle in France where you work?

Oh yes, the castle. I have a small house on the country side in the south of France. There is this castle near my house that I have known about since I was a child. It was abandoned after the war. There was a fire and the woman who lived in it lost her husband there and she left it. She is actually still living but she has another castle in another part of France. Over the course of my life I saw the castle begin to slowly deteriorate. Then in 1990 I started to work on it, to clean it up so I could work in it. As I kid I would go there and party and this sort of thing. It is an interesting place, the sheep roam around in it and there is just something amazing about this place.

© Le Chateau de Sybille, France

In your last show you did a portrait of yourself as a magician, is magic something that you are interested in?

I do believe in things that are strange or beyond us, things that are beyond our own interpretation of reality. I do believe in ghosts and things like that but I do not dare say this to too many people, people will look at you like you are crazy. I also believe you can look to the future, or you can know your future. I believe that you can have what you wish if you focus your mind on it. You must focus hard and if you want deep in heart something so badly it will happen for you. For me it has taken many years.

© 2005 Taiwan Paste

The latest street art movement has come to see you as one of the pioneers of stencil art. As one of the first in the current art movement where would you draw inspiration from?

That is a nice thing to hear but there were other guys too. There was an American guy named John Fekner. He used to make stencils in New York in 1978. Not so much pictures but more words and political phrases. He made some really interesting statements. As an artist I do not think that we truly invent anything at this point. For me it is more about focusing on a memory that I may have had, than actually inventing anything. People recreate what they have seen but with their own vision. I do not believe in the painter who says I invent this or that. It does not exist anymore. It is just how you do it that makes it different than others. I can say I have taken inspiration from many places in my life.

© 2000 Paste up, Paris

How much of your work is politically based?

Some of it is political, not all but some. I have had some problems with that. The David with the machine gun I did to support Israel. This was not well received, especially in Europe because many people do not support Israel. But, I do not support the war between Palestine and Israel. I do not wish for anyone to be killing anyone. I also did one piece based on the homeless people in Paris. The government in France takes care of them. They give them a tent so they can sleep and in some places you will see 30 tents in a row, housing entire families. So I did one stencil called the beggar. I guess that it is more social than political. For me it is about rebellion, the rebellion against (mainstream) art, culture, etc.. I prefer for people to see the image of my work and make their own conclusions about what it means.

© 2006 David, Spring Street NYC

Do you feel the work you are doing is something that should be preserved?

I do think it is important for art to be preserved. I did not feel the same 10 years ago, I was like fuck this, it is all shit but now I am getting older and have changed my view. I look back and think about the 70's. There is very little left of the graffiti of the 70's. I would like very much to have something from Cornbread or Taki 183, but it is just impossible because the work does not exist. We need to keep something of what has happened for historical reasons. I really believe the graffiti and street art movement is the most important movement in art ever. There is not a city in the world without graffiti now. It has never happened like this with the amount of people involved ever before. Not even in pop art, which was a big movement. Art should be saved for the future generations, which is why I think it is important for the gallery end to support street art, if for nothing else than for history.

© 2003 No Bush

© 1987 Morocco

Can you describe the street scene of the early 80s and your work in those days?

I almost think that during this time in Paris me and my friend J.R. were alone. Or maybe we just did not see the others. It was six or nine months before others began painting, at least this is when we began to notice. There was this one guy who used to go in the subway and repaint the billboards. Also in the early 80s an American guy named Richard Hambleton had come to Paris. This guy was so fucking important to street art. He was the first guy like this to bring his work over from the United States. I remember seeing his work in 82 or 83. By this time I was already making rats, you know, but this guy gave me the idea of making bigger things and figures. His work was large shadow figures and it was very inspiring to me. In the 80s his work was all over New York. After seeing his stuff I began doing larger works and I would often do my self-portrait because I always wanted to be famous. As I said, I always dreamt of being a pop start. It seems funny but this is true.

© 2004 Paris sheep Paste

© 2004 Sheep Stencil, London

The famed Banksy has been quoted for saying "Every time I think I've painted something slightly original, I find out that Blek Le Rat has done it as well. Only twenty years earlier..." This being said what are your thoughts on Banksy?

I can tell you now that I have a stock of good ideas for him. Really, I do! I have many good ideas but this time he will have to pay because we all know that he is fucking rich. (laughs) By him saying this it is a good thing. Banksy saying this about me allows me take a little bit back from him. He takes, but we all take from someplace.

© 1986 Last Tango in Paris

© 2006 Sleeping Bag Paste, 11 Spring Street, NYC

If not graffiti, then what?

I do not know, I guess I would have continued to do architecture. I have done this for 27 years of my life. Very soon I will be an old man. You can smile and pretend that this is not the case but this is true, I know this. You think you will do many things in your life and devote yourself to many different things but I have done only one thing in my life, graffiti. Sometimes I am sad that it still is not more recognized. I have spent many many years at this and still I struggle. In France they say "nobody is a prophet in his own time." It has taken me 27 years to bring my message. I am little known, my work is not in any museums and most of the art establishments still consider graffiti art shit. It is fucking hard, you know...

© 2004 Traveler and his Sheep, Buenos Aires

Do you have any famous last words?

This life is fucking important so do not waste yours on bullshit.

© 2004 Sagitarius, Le Chateau de Sybille, France


Blek's show ART IS NOT PEACE BUT WAR opens April 5th in Los Angeles at Subliminal Projects.

Photos: © Blek Le Rat and Libero De Cunzo
Thanks to: Blek, and Malena Seldin

Comments
/////////
hum I love "no" (bush)
Written by anton on 2008-04-02 10:50:13


/////////
i want to see a blek/banksy collab
Written by isthisit on 2008-04-02 12:56:11


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Were you a full-time artist all along or have you had a seperate career? If so I am curious what you spent your career doing?
Written by ben on 2008-04-02 16:35:05


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i feel like banksy got his whole stees from blek.  
nonetheless they both address the space they work in really well, banksy maybe even better than blek
Written by fishglue on 2008-04-02 17:28:11


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Just the fact that Blek has spent so much time in this 
and is still doing it at the level he is inspiring 
within itself. The dates on those photographs are 
crazy... what a different time! 
 
All this stuff is wonderful.
Written by THEPIXELSs on 2008-04-02 19:14:54


/////////
those dates.....man, those dates are scary. hes fuckin awesome. respectfuly brilliant man.
Written by magishcock on 2008-04-02 21:15:28


/////////
awesome Blek Le Rat is amazing...the fact that he has been around so long is a testament to street art and its universality as a medium for thought. Keep it up brotha
Written by mrplugs on 2008-04-02 21:17:26


/////////
Wow. 3 words...pie yawn ear!!! i wonder if Banksy's trademark Black Rats are homage to Blek le Rat?!? that'd be funny/cool in a respectful kinda way.
Written by kennillas on 2008-04-02 22:27:45


/////////
His work is very good and obviously inspired a lot of people. That castle is really awesome too!
Written by michaelporreca on 2008-04-03 03:30:11


/////////
great interview, great artist! thanks, l.e.t.
Written by L.E.T. on 2008-04-03 08:03:04


/////////
How does Blek feel about the fame Banksy has gained using rats? Did Banksy steal/barrow this image form him?
Written by carlsbadcrawl on 2008-04-04 08:22:51


/////////
The "© 2004 Sheep Stencil, London" is not placed in London but in Florance (Firenze). Is near an art bar not so far from Santo Spirito called OIO. 
That's it. 
Navysky is the website
Written by Carcarlo on 2008-04-04 08:42:19


/////////
Love the style. Excellent artist. 
 
In Santa Cruz, we love the Bleck, Bleckety McBleckerson!
Written by 47Project on 2008-04-04 21:55:14


/////////
Lets put this recent street art within the proper perspective. I've been doing some research and If you were to hunt out information on John Fekner, it looks as if he is an original with his stenciling from the 70s/80s. His work is constantly changing, resulting in the fact that he is never mentioned. He is anonymously well know and undeniable subliminal. Not only with words, but with toxic barrels, skeletons, deer, “no” tv, symbols, etc. The work is out there on the streets, years before Keith Haring, Blek, Obey, etc. He not only influenced countless street artists and ‘gallery’ artists, but fashion designers, typographers and musicians living and working in NYC at the time. In 1980, Fekner messages were seen at Charlotte St. in the South Bronx; years before rap turned political with Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five’s “The Message” and Public Enemy’s stenciled logo campaign. Underground 80s punk bands like Stanton Miranda, Heartbreakers wrote songs entitled “Wheels Over Indian Trails” which every New Yorker and visitor saw upon arriving in NYC through the Queens Midtown Tunnel. Never tagged and burned into memory for millions for an decade! Finally, with Don Leicht (from the Bronx, they were the space invader pioneers. Check out “YOUR SPACE HAS BEEN INVADED. www.johnfekner.net www.donleicht.com http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Fekner 
And we haven’t even discussed his 8-bit animations video work, or the infamous Itchychoo Park text that Fekner painted on a park house wall in 1968!!!  

Written by antebellum on 2008-04-07 06:04:35


/////////
antebellum,  
I want to thank you for your comment. As you may have noticed we did link to www.johnfekner.net and a few others. We do realize that there were other artist in the streets in the 70s early 80s and we also tried to use this piece to not only show some respect to Blek Le Rat but to pay homage to some of the others guys who were running around making history as well.  
 
We are not denying that there have been many many artist over the years who have influenced culture and this so called "street art" but this piece is not a piece about street art. This piece is about Blek Le Rat and his involvement in it, as well as his experience in his own words. Thanks again for the very informative comment... All the best! 
-Manuel Bello 

Written by Mr.Bello on 2008-04-07 07:40:20


/////////
Great art work of Blek!!! and many thank to antebellum for the info about John Fekner. It will be an additional big help for my thesis paper work. I do agree he is one of the most influential stencil artists from NY. Very original! Fecal Face is a great resource! Thank you all!!!!!
Written by heywon on 2008-04-07 07:58:18


/////////
I'd say Banksy has some explaining to do. In the intro to WALL AND PIECE, he tells the story of how he came to stencils and his style. He claims it was a necessity to cut down on work time and avoid cops. Never does he mention anyone else. There is not even a nod to Blek the Rat. Has anyone called bullshit on this?
Written by AZ9 on 2008-04-11 18:47:03


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Swoon & Monica Canilao
A little sneak peak at their show "Feral" that opens this Friday @The Luggage Store here in San Francisco.
High 5s: Never Too Busy
Freakin' Frack, there's a lot to get done before Saturday
While Other Kids Were Stealing Chromies
I can't believe that our newest contributor from Chicago used to tour with Phish. What have we gotten ourselves into?! Meet Ryan Christian.
Guest: Brion Nuda Rosch
This SF based artist travels to Boston for a show at The Allston Skirt Gallery.
Free Fridayz: David Bowie
Ground control to major Thom... Your lights are something and I wanna win this week's Free Fridayz.
Jeff Soto: Art field trip in L.A.
Jeff takes a trip around LA checking out some shows that are currently running.
Jay Howell Preview
A peek at his new great show, Punks Git Cut, which opens Thursday at 111 Minna here in San Francisco.
N&P: London Mega-Blog
The Shopkeep's in London-town for a show Needles and Pens had at 96 Gillespie.
NightOwlCoHolic: Tampon!
Off to Tampa with Jeremy Fish for the Tampa Am Contest.
Free Fridayz: Growing Pains
We post theme, you draw, you send, we post, you win?
Guest: Travis Millard
Travis blogs up his and Mel Kadel's show that's running now in LA @The Richard Heller Gallery.
FF Gallery Open
Photos from the opening of our new gallery that went down Saturday. Also the work online for purchase... And now back to normal.
N&P: Art Sweat Shop
The Shopkeep heads over to Monica Canilao's studio with Kyle Ranson and Chris Duncan to work on a zine for their show in London @96 Gillespie.
Guest: Michael Sieben
Our Texas buddy, Michael Sieben and all around great artist, blogs up a show that he and his Okay Mountain comrades put together at the Creative Research Laboratory in Austin, Texas.
FECAL FACE DOT GALLERY
Our first show, Welcome Home, opens this Saturday. We're giving the floors some love.
How To Make a Video for Bonnie 'Prince' Billy
Mike Aho shows you how he did it for his song I Called You Back.
Free Fridayz: Karate Kid
Sweep the leg, Johnny!
N&P: Dirty Skate Mags of Yester Yore
The Shopkeep travels down memory lane visiting Blender and a zine he made!
Guest Blog: David Shillinglaw
David blogs up a show in Turkey and a quick stop to see Anthony Lister.
High 5s: The 1000th Post!!!
In all of the years we've known each other I've never known you to be such a tart when it comes to mixing shiffon with lavender!
Guest: Pat Graham
He's shot photos for Modest Mouse, Tortoise, and others. Now he and his wife run 96 Gillespie gallery in London. A short blog on setting up a show featuring: Gee Vaucher, Michael Sieben, and others.
Free Fridayz: Time Machine
If you had a time machine I think you'd like to travel back to the 20s to find a copacetic sheba with berrylishish gams.
Touring w/ Cocorosie
The great musical duo blog up a recent tour for Fecal Face.
Free Fridayz: Birthdays
Whose birthday? Your birthday? Eat your arm.
High 5s: Fecal Face Gallery
The first week of trying to make the new Fecal Face gallery look like... an art gallery.
N&P: Duncan, Ranson & New Pale Hoarse LP
The Shopkeep is laying low checking out Pale Hoarse and preparing for spring?
Free Fridayz: Rain
When it rains it snores.
High 5s: Austin Day 5
Photos from the opening of our show Gold Rush and other Austin whatnots.
Jeff Soto: Taking a Break
Jeff blogs up Regino Gonzales & Henry Lewis's show @Corey Helford in LA and discusses the state of the "scene".
High 5s: Austin Day 4
We're back in SF, but the blogging continues. This day we checked out Tim Kerr's house and his insane collections of toys and musical whatnots including the original Minor Threat Out of Step album art!
High 5s: Austin Day 3
Getting ready for the Fecal Face show @Okay Mountain that opens tonight, Saturday. Hanging in there.
High 5s: Austin Day 2
Still in Austin as we prepare for our show. Thanks to the Sieben's for putting us up and being our tour guides!
High 5s: Austin Day 1
We're out here getting ready for our show at Okay Mountain that opens on Saturday. Blogging from the road every day.
Ben Tour @Fifty24SF
Our great and industrious intern, Joy Suthigoseeya, went over to Fift24SF to get a sneak peek at Ben's show which opens on Thursday here in SF.
Romanclature - Part III
Marr wraps up his Rome adventures with Jeremy Fish.
Free Fridayz: Fruits & Veggies
Every week it's the same damn thing! You submit your drawings, people vote and someone wins something. Can't you remember that, jerk?!
Jeff Soto: Regino Gonzales & Miami
Jeff got a peak at Gonzales show that opens up this Saturday @Corey Helford in LA w/ SF artist Henry Lewis... Jeff also wraps up his Miami trip.
High 5s: 2007 Over and Out
Graveyards and other holiday drinking.
Free Fridayz: Hills and Mountains
Hey, it's Friday and another round of drawings. This week's been hell.
Brion Nuda Rosch
This SF artist and curator for Adobe Books emailed over some of his great holiday collages.
Free Fridayz: Teeth
Keep 'em clean and keep your 40s cold with this week's drawings.
Jeff Soto: Miami II
Jeff continues his art fair travels.
High 5s: First Comes Marriage
"If you live to be a hundred, I want yo live to be a hundred minus one day, so I never have to live without you." -Winnie the Pooh
N&P: Over the Bridge and Back
A bike ride and then to see Gee Vaucher @Jack Hanley.
Jeff Soto: Miami
Off to Miami for all the art fair craziness.
N&P: Nostalgia Peddler
Naked Raygun, fixing Tim Kerr's accordion, and Tim's show with Rich Jacobs @Needles and Pens complete with bonus video.
Mondays: Doze Green & David Ellis
We stop by and visit their studios as they prepare for a massive show @Fifty24SF here in SF.

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