Blek le Rat, the man who gave birth to Banksy

Blek le Rat is the grand old man of street art — he paved the way for our very own Banksy. After years of dodging the French authorities he’s finally making serious money. But is he still a revolutionary? Portraits by Pal Hansen

Blek le Rat with his self-portrait, The Man Who Walks Through Walls

“Have you ever made some graffiti?” asks Blek le Rat in his seductive French accent, his eyes drifting off dreamily towards exciting memories of his own. “Er, no,” I stutter back sheepishly, feeling like a kid at school who’s just been asked by an older boy if he’s ever gone all the way with a woman. “You have to try to do it once,” he sighs.

“Go once in the street with a spray can. Spray your signature. Then go back the day after to see. I’m sure you’ll go back. Because when you leave something in the street, you leave a part of yourself.”

Perhaps it’s the French accent. Perhaps it’s the excitement of finally tracking down the legendary Blek le Rat. But the prospect of careering through the streets of London spraying my name hither and thither suddenly feels extremely tempting. Had there been some spray cans in the room with us, I think I would have asked him there and then to lead me out and show me.

So this is what spraying graffiti does to a man. The rational bit of my brain might disapprove, but the irrational bit can’t wait to start. Blek le Rat, the smooth-tongued satan of stencil art, had imparted an important lesson. Inside all of us there appears to be a little chap with a spray can frantically signalling to be let out.

Right now, anything you learn about the urge to paint on walls is useful because there is no bigger cultural phenomenon abroad in the world than graffiti, or, to use its posher modern name, street art. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s taking over the planet. The outside of Tate Modern is currently plastered with the stuff. The prices it is fetching at Christie’s and Sotheby’s are head-scratchingly huge. Even Selfridges has begun auctioning it. And that is just in London.

Travel further afield, to Rio or Melbourne or Barcelona or Beijing, and you will discover entire slabs of city overtaken by it. Street art is currently the hottest potato in the pan. And a lot of that is down to Blek le Rat.

Don’t fret if you’ve never heard of him before. Few have. For most of his long career, Blek has been a shadow, a phantom, a myth. Pretty much all that anybody knew about him was that he came from Paris, and that he had been spraying graffiti since the early 1980s. His chosen style – stencil art – also happens to be the style favoured by the world’s most notorious street artist, Banksy. But Blek began using it two decades ago.

So in the annals of street art, he occupies a particularly important chapter reserved for pioneers. Blek is the great ancestor: the grandfather of stencils. And everybody in street art owes him a massive debt, especially Banksy, who owes him so much that it is sometimes difficult to tell the two of them apart.

Fortunately, underneath all the fierce urban posturing, Banksy is a soppy sort, and in his “unofficial biography”, due out next month, he duly heaps praise where praise is due. “Every time I think I’ve painted something original,” admits the stencil-king, “I find out that Blek le Rat has done it as well, only 20 years earlier.”

Actually, you need to go back much further than 20 years to get anywhere near the origins of graffiti art. You have to return to prehistory. I’ve seen naughty scratchings on cave walls that are at least 20,000 years old. Give someone an opportunity to scrawl something they shouldn’t, somewhere they oughtn’t, and in my experience the blighters will always take it. For instance, that well-known vandal, Lord Byron, appears not to have felt any pangs of conscience whatsoever about incising his name on a column in the ancient Temple of Poseidon, in Attica, where you can still read it. Byron couldn’t help himself: he had to let people know he’d been there. The same goes for those notorious Renaissance vandals Michelangelo and Raphael, both of whom sneaked down into the basement of Nero’s Golden House in Rome and signed themselves on the ruins.

Rewinding still further, to classical times, did the famous gladiator Celadus Crescens feel any remorse when he wrote on the walls of the gladiatorial academy in Pompeii that “Celadus makes girls sigh”. I doubt it. And I don’t think his fellow Pompeiian vandal, the chap who drew a penis on a street corner and then added the slogan “Handle with care”, felt particularly guilty either.

What I’m saying is that the urge to produce graffiti is a basic instinct. You can dismiss it as vandalism if you wish, and get council workers in to paint over it until the day that Vesuvius blows again, but I guarantee you will never stop it.

Blek himself is convinced that the current interest in graffiti is just the start. Street art, he purrs wickedly, is going to be more global than any art movement has ever been. I suspect he’s right. This is only the beginning. Our taste for graffiti might be ancient, but what is new here is the amplifying power of the internet, which is how the message has managed to broadcast itself so widely.

The internet is what Banksy used to get himself noticed.

It is how people in Rio found out about him, and in Beijing, and in Jerusalem. It is also how I tracked down Blek le Rat who, of course, has his own website these days to remind everyone of what he has done, and to hint at why he did it.

Blek’s main claim to fame – and it’s a big one – is that he invented the life-sized stencil. It’s a quick and brainless way to make pictures. Stencils used to be looked down upon as the easiest kind of graffiti. But Blek changed all that. His great discovery was to find that a stencil designed and sprayed carefully enough, and imagined on a large enough scale, could make the wall feel as if it were being clambered over by real people. Blek’s art didn’t decorate the city. It haunted it.

Back at the beginning of the 1980s, while Banksy was still at primary school, all manner of mysterious urban ghosts began flitting across the alleys and dead ends of Paris, startling unsuspecting city dwellers as they came around the corner. With their habitual sarcasm and grim social observation, Blek’s ubiquitous stencils began waging a guerrilla war with the populace that was annoyingly difficult to avoid.

The first haunting organised by this scarlet pimpernel of the spray can was the sudden appearance on the subways of the Périphérique of hundreds of scampering rats. The horrible little silhouettes were soon migrating into the centre of Paris. Up the Champs Elysées. All round the Pompidou Centre. Through Montmartre. Into La Défense. In doorways. Under bridges. It was as if the city was experiencing a plague. How did the rats get here?

Who let them in? The only clue was the mysterious name sprayed audaciously among the vermin: Blek le Rat.

“Rats,” giggles the pervy Pied Piper of Paris in a happy attempt at an explanation, “are the only wild animals living in the city. With pigeons. They are the rebels of the city. They are evil. They live in groups. They steal food from the supermarkets. And Paris is full of rats. So it was a way of saying to the people, ‘Your city is full of rats and cockroaches. Be careful where you’re living.’ ” Once he’d successfully filled Paris with rats, Blek got on the train to Toulouse and unleashed his stencils there as well. Then Lyon. Then Marseilles. Boy, did he have fun.

All of which is revealed to me in the gentle and considerate tones of a caring schoolteacher ensuring that a particularly thick pupil is getting his gist. Frankly, meeting the real Blek is a bit of a shock. One of his best-known stencils is a life-sized self-portrait in which he’s wearing a Blues Brothers suit and snappy black shades as he strides manfully towards you with a couple of heavy suitcases filled with stencils. It’s a cool and macho image: have stencils, will travel. In the flesh, however, the last thing Blek looks like is a rebellious street artist. With his sloppy jacket, stretchy trousers and sprawling hair banging loosely about his collar, he seems as thoroughly ordinary as the chap who has been teaching my daughter geography. And when he talks, it comes out in charming French coos, as if I were a cat on his lap that needed stroking.

His real name is Xavier Prou, and he is, unbelievably, 56 years old. His splendid nom de guerre was carefully chosen as soon as he knew what he was planning for us. Like all graffiti artists working in the streets at night, he needed to find another name, because you don’t leave your real name at the bottom of your illegal pictures for the police to trace. Instead, you come up with something else that’s catchy and punchy and cool. Like Banksy. Or Swoon. He settled on Blek le Rat for a couple of reasons.

As a kid, he’d been a fan of some comic books set in the war of American independence featuring the antics of a character called Blek le Roc, a thorn in the side of the British. Also, if you jumble up the letters of the word “rat” you get “art”. Voilà.

I love these absurd secret identities that street artists assume. Banksy is fiercely determined not to reveal his real self. Even Blek has never met him. They communicate by e-mail. One thing I can be certain of, Blek assures me, is that the best place to look for Banksy is in front of his art. No street artist can resist coming back to admire their own work time and time again. Indeed, it is one of the chief reasons for doing it. First, you make something. Then you watch everyone else noticing it.

Funnily enough, none of the street artists I have met look anything like street artists. I was down in the tunnel underneath Waterloo station recently where Banksy had organised his now notorious Cans Festival – “the most important event in the history of street art,” insists Blek – and kept encountering decrepit older codgers who turned out to be famous urban daubers. Judging by the length of his beard, Ron English is about 101. Kaagman was born in 1955, but looks much older. Even the chap who calls himself Pure Evil was a sweet and smiley bloke, greying at the temples, who’d make a nice uncle. None of them looked capable of outrunning the police or, indeed, ever wishing to. A more placid gang of rebels you could not hope to encounter.

When I ask Blek to remember his most exciting adventure as a street artist, I expect him to titillate me with thrilling tales of dangling off the Pont Neuf as gangs of angry flics banged away at his ankles to loosen his grip, but he curbs my enthusiasm brusquely by insisting: “For me it was never exciting. Because I’m very paranoid. When I work in the street I’m very, very paranoid. I don’t feel like a rebel at all. My dream would be if the city allowed us to make some art in the street without having any problems afterwards. I’ve never been a rebel. Even when I started. I was 30 when I started to make graffiti. So I was a rebel when I was 17 or 18, but not at 30.” Next Christmas, I really must send him some comfortable slippers and a hot-water bottle.

After the rats, Blek started producing the life-sized figures for which he is now notorious, the first of which was an old Irish man in a flat cap. Followed by a Greek widow in a long black dress.

Then, in 1991, he got caught. He was working on a full-size Madonna and Child borrowed from a picture by Caravaggio. The idea was to make it look as if famous paintings had escaped from the Louvre and were now wandering the streets. He had been caught before, but on this occasion it was just as he was signing his name at the bottom, so the police finally found out who Blek le Rat was. The court case that followed stretched on for a whole miserable year, during which he invented a new way of working. Instead of spraying his stencils directly onto the wall, he began spraying them onto posters, and then sticking those up instead. Posters were easier to put up, and easier to take down.

“When the police arrest you pasting a poster you can say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, sir. I’m going to remove the poster immediately. And I’m not going to do it any more.’ ”

Isn’t putting up posters something of a climb-down for a man of your reputation, Blek? Aren’t they a little soft?

“Actually, I prefer to work with posters. Because you go faster. In the street, you must be very fast. If you stay longer than two minutes, the police come. But with posters you go very fast. In 30 seconds you can paste a poster.

Also, it’s not an aggression for the wall. I understand the reaction of people when they are not so happy to have graffiti on their walls. I want to be nice with people and I like people to be nice with me. That’s the reason also I don’t make aggressive images. You know all my images are suitable for people, for children, for everyone. Some graffiti artists want to destroy the city but I’m not like that at all. I don’t want to make sex images or stuff like that. My images are a present I make for everyone.”

On second thoughts, the slippers and hot-water bottle may not be enough. I think a container-load of Horlicks is called for.

The first time Blek came to England to work was five years ago. Before that he simply couldn’t afford it. The best-known pieces he has produced here are his life-size stencils of Princess Diana, who is surely an unlikely passion for a man with his credentials.

He surprises me further by admitting that the idea originally came to him in a beautiful dream. “In the dream she asks me, ‘Oh please, please, Blek, put my image in the streets of London.’ So I did. And after that everything worked in England for me.” He really believes in things like that. The actual reason he became a street artist was because he visited a fortune-teller in Paris when he was 20 years old who told him that she saw him working with walls. First he trained as an architect. And when that didn’t happen, he became a stencil artist.

I rub my ears to make sure they are not blocked still with urban detritus picked up in the tunnel at the Cans Festival, and turn to a subject that will surely make him so angry that he will revert to being the real Blek le Rat instead of this tea-leaf-reading impostor I find before me. Let’s talk about Banksy. Doesn’t he resent the fact that Banksy stole all his ideas and is now making heaps of money out of them?

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