"The Man Who Walks Through Walls" 2007
Our artist of the week: Blek le Rat
Whenever anyone pronounces Banksy as the only internationally significant street artist, there really ought to be at least one person correcting them, pointing out that actually, the legendarily reclusive Englishman is merely the 'father' of today's graffiti art that has gained such widespread cultural acceptance. The 'godfather'? None other than Blek le Rat, of course!
As you might imagine from the name even if you know nothing about the man, Blek le Rat is French. More specifically, he was born Xavier Prou in one of the western Parisian suburbs, Boulogne-Billancourt, in the early 1950s, and like many of today's famous practitioners of this most anti-Establishment art form, his initial creative forays were ones that would have met with much more official approval.
Befitting his 'high bourgeois' origins - something quite contrary to the tracksuited, spotty teenager image that came to be associated with street art pre-Banksy - the young Prou attended the prestigious L'Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts to study etching, lithography and painting. He then took an architecture degree, following in the footsteps of his architect father.
However, his place of study did not quite turn out to be the stereotypically straitlaced architecture school, Prou recalling that "at university, my teachers were Trotskyites, revolutionaries; they taught me much more than pure art. I was learning about another world." Nor is it difficult to see how Prou would come to apply his newly-acquired understanding about the urban environment in his later, slightly more subversive creative life.
It took until 1981, however, for Prou to take what must have been an increasingly obvious route for such a socially and politically aware individual: that of street art, as he became one of the first stencil artists in his native city. A particular favourite motif was the rat, on account of not only its status as "the only wild animal living in pretty much all cities", but also the fact that the very word 'rat' was an anagram of 'art'. Sure enough, this most urban of animals also inspired his artist name.
In keeping with many Parisian artists before him, Blek le Rat has been unafraid to look across the Atlantic for inspiration, with a visit to New York City in 1971 helping to spur on his early appreciation of graffiti art. Since his 1991 identification by the French authorities, who arrested him when they caught him stencilling a replica of Caravaggio's Madonna and Child, he has switched to pre-stencilled posters to speed up his creative process and minimise his chances of being caught.
However, the man who has been declared the inventor of the life-sized stencil, as well as the first to turn stencil from basic lettering into pictorial art, remains as politically aware as ever, also sticking steadfastly to a philosophy of bringing art to the masses - and quite right, too.