Explore your world
The Birth of Paris Street Art: Before Banksy, There Was Blek le Rat

The Birth of Paris Street Art: Before Banksy, There Was Blek le Rat

Picture of Joanna Reid
Updated: 23 December 2016
For the time being, forget Banksy; let’s talk about Blek, the man who gave birth to many of the world’s most famous street artists today. One of the most influential pioneers of street art, Blek le Rat mastered and originated the art of the stencil graffiti long before anyone else did, and has gone on to influence well-known contemporary artists such as Space Invader, Shepard Fairey, and even Banksy himself.

Thanks to Blek le Rat, we saw the urban movement of street art in France flourish and blossom throughout Europe. Banksy, the globally recognized yet famously anonymous street artist, has even noted himself in his unclaimed biography, ‘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.’

So who is the man behind the iconic signature rat?

To start, it must be noted that Blek le Rat was not born with this name and does not bear any resemblance to the animal itself. This pseudonym is his work name, but when he’s not coloring on the walls of Paris, Berlin, London, New York, Florence, Los Angeles, California and Mexico, just to name a few, he goes by the name of Xavier Prou.

Born in Boulogne-Billancourt, a commune in the western suburbs of Paris, in 1951, the artist’s reputation is not unbacked by degrees. Having studied engraving and architecture at the prestigious École Des Beaux Arts in Paris, it was not until 1971 that he ventured overseas to discover the ins and outs of wild graffiti art. New York was the wonderfully creative city where Prou found his main source of inspiration and realized his calling in life. Surrounded by miniature drawings on the city’s wall, Prou did not quite grasp exactly why people were making art this way, as there was nothing of the sort to be seen on Parisian streets. Prou grew increasingly curious about this style, and so he began to take techniques he had learned at art school, such as etching, lithography and serigraphy, and incorporate them to create his own original style of graffiti art. What Prou did that no one else had was the utilization of pre-stenciled posters and images allowing the application of paint to be a lot speedier. This also eliminated the chances of the dreaded three Ps for any graffiti artist – police, prison and penalties. Prou creates most of his stencils by hand, crafting each to perfection to allow for the best detail possible upon application, and works mainly in black and white.

In the early 1980s, black painted rats began to appear on the street walls of Paris, which, unknown to Prou at the time, would mark the beginning of the transformation of Paris’s visual landscape and identity.

Yet why did rats become his hallmark, and why name yourself after this furry little creature? First, rat is an anagram for the word art. Second, the the rat population of Paris is double in size to that of people, drawing a parallel between the invasion of street art and the ubiquity of rats in the city. Prou is also fascinated by the lives of rats, citing that they are the only free animals who maintain a well-organized society and who look after each other, giving him the sentiment that they are perhaps a much more humane community than that of human beings. ‘Blek’ is derived from an Italian comic book from the 1960s entitled Blek le Roc.

After a decade of remaining under the radar, Blek le Rat was eventually discovered and caught by the French authorities while he was stenciling an outline of his interpretation of Caravaggio’s Madonna and Child painting.

Madonna and Child by Blek le Rat | © Stefan Kloo/WikiCommons
Madonna and Child by Blek le Rat | © Stefan Kloo/WikiCommons

The stenciled black and white figures of Blek le Rat’s “Madonna and Child” depict a woman called Sybille who came from the surrounding area. Blek le Rat had fallen in love with Sybille and decided to proclaim his amorous feelings to her and the rest of the world by spray painting her image while referencing the master Italian baroque artist Caravaggio’s famous piece. Fortunately, this love story has a happy ending, as Sybille and Prou are now married and have one son together. This image is Blek le Rat’s oldest remaining work of art.

Yet it was not just his love life and the city of New York that inspired Prou. Artists such as David Hockney, an English artist who produced life crayon drawings, 1960s pop artist Andy Warhol and the English painter Richard Hamilton, who worked with collage and who did not like to play by the traditional rules of art, were all key influencers on his work.

“The Man Who Walks Through Walls” is a self-portrait of the artist himself. Taking the body of Buster Keaton, one of his favorite actors, Prou has stenciled this image of a traveling man carrying suitcases in cities all over the world, indicating his lifestyle and mission to spread his art widely.

When Prou creates a work of graffiti art, he is careful to select the right location to fit the design he has in mind, as his aim is for each piece to integrate creatively into its immediate surroundings. For him, the image must be an addition to the community and not be seen as a desecration of a city’s architecture.

A picture can speak a thousand words, and this is exactly the case in Prou’s series of works on homeless people.The images sprayed in New York demonstrate the city’s problems of thousands living on the streets with no stable home. It also raises the issue to passersby who stop to look at the art, but who might normally neglect to take in and be concerned by the real life homeless people on the streets.

Street art is a way to transmit important ideas to mainstream civilians, to bring art to the people and to tell a powerful story. Like Blek le Rat, Banksy is not just an artist but also a critic of society who has also used his graffiti to send a message to the world. Also like Prou, Banksy is well known for stenciling his images to walls that often include large solitary figures, exerting a strong influence on the French artists’ work.

Prou is an admirer of Banksy’s work and has been cited as saying that he respects him and appreciates his touch of British humor demonstrated in his work. It is clear, however, when looking at several pieces by Banksy that the French artist has had a strong influence on his work. Can you notice any similarities?

So there you have it: first there was Blek, and then there was Bansky. If Banksy is the father of street art, then Blek le Rat is most certainly the grandfather of the movement, as it was he who set action into motion with the invention of stenciled graffiti. Currently, Prou resides in France with his wife and son, and continues to produce artworks and hold exhibitions around the world. This little rat will not soon be forgotten!