Artist Interviews 2021

Blek le Rat  
By Johnny Otto

You’re often called “The Father or The Godfather of Stencil Graffiti”. How did you get started and who were your easiest influences?

Everything started in the USA in the summer 1972 when I made a trip  for a few weeks to stay in NYC, and to Utica NY by my friend Larry Wolhandler. This is in NYC where I met the early graffiti, pieces and tags that already adorned the walls and the metro of the city. I have to admit  that  this journey had an immeasurable impact in my life. At that time nobody  had a response for the question: "Who are the people who are making graffiti and why do they do that". I remember asking Larry the reason why those people were writing their names everywhere on the walls. Larry told me "I really don't know, perhaps  they belong to a sect..." It took me ten years to digest and in 1981 I started to make graffiti by myself in Paris. I did not want to try to imitate the American graffiti because I did not have the skill to paint directly with a spray can like the American graffiti artist. So I decided to make a stencil of a rat in my studio and then to go by night to paint those rats on the walls of Paris. Paris is full of real rats  and it was a way to tell people from Paris  "Your city is a beautiful city but it is full of rats". Interestingly, RAT is also the anagram of ART.

In 1983 Richard Hambelton made a trip to Europe and  left many beautiful "Shadows"  particularly in Paris.  When I saw his huge "Shadow" painted with a brush and black paint I understood that I had to paint larger figures rather than small rats. My first large stencil  was the portrait of an old Irish  man who was screaming in the street . I painted this figure many times in different regions of France during the summer1983. I realized then the power of graffiti and the impact it had on people. I was sure at that time that graffiti art would develop exponentially.

The Rat or Mouse has become your calling card. What does that symbolize to you? What’s the importance of that imagery?

Rats are the only wild mammal living in cities. They are fascinating because they live near us, we share the same food , they have a social behavior towards other rats, they know how to take the subway to move to other places. We reject them knowing that only Rats will survive to the end of the world. It symbolizes the invasion as a spreading disease. The connection between rats and graffiti. Graffiti spreads all over the world like a plague and is equally unstoppable.

I recently saw some of your work at the Degrees of Separation show at Julien’s alongside the newer generation of street artists like Plastic Jesus and WRDSMTH. How did that show come about?

I think it is great and beautiful ! It 's always a pleasure to show my work in the USA  in particular in "Los Angeles"  I love California. Unfortunately I could not come for the show due to Covid and the restrictions between our two countries.

What is your take on BANKSY, who also uses the Rat as a symbol in a lot of his work?

It's good to know that I influenced Banksy 's style. Actually I haven't met him, the "Invisible Man". Certainly I would like to see this phenomenon. I am impressed by his success and his talent as an organizer. He put the stencil graffiti art  movement at an another level which I am very happy about that.

What other Artists inspire you or would you want to collaborate with?

I am not inspired but I like Shepard Fairey,  Mark Jenkins, Slinkachu , Pure Evil and many others American and British artist. I was happy to collaborate with Shepard Fairey in 2008 we worked together on three screen print and we make several street art in Los Angeles during the solo show I had at "Subliminal Project Gallery ".

During my youth, I was inspired by Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Albrecht Dürer,  and all American pop art. I also went very often to Italy during my youth and later in my age. I am very interested in art history. Italy is an incredible country regarding art, architecture, sculpture, museums, and churches full of the greatest paintings of all time. I am very influenced by Italian culture from the Romans to the Renaissance into the Baroque period.

You’re also doing a show with Risk, is that right? What is that like? Is it a collaboration?

I like Risk and we have the same agent, Brian Greif. I met Risk in Paris during a street art festival three years ago, he looks like a very nice guy! Next time I'll be in LA why not a collaboration with Risk!

What else is coming up for you? What goals do you still have that you’d like to see some to fruition?

I am working in my studio preparing new paintings. I really like to work in my studio, I don't have any assistants and I am 100% in my work. Covid restrictions are good for working. I don't see many people and I spend most of my time at home. I live in the countryside 50 miles from Paris, France. Getting older I don't like cities anymore. I was born in Paris and I know the city so well. I probably know Paris better than the countryside but life is so hard in cities now that I enjoy living in the countryside.

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