Blek Le Rat is a street art legend. He is the first major stencil artist and has worked all over the world. He is an extremely important and influential figure in the history of street art and I had the honor of going out to have a chat with him while he was preparing for his show at 941 Geary Gallery that opened this past Saturday, November 19th. Here’s how it went:
SFAB: In your words, how would you describe the progression of your work over the years?
BLR: Over thirty years of working it has changed a lot. At the beginning I was making only rats, small rats. I used to spray them in the streets of Paris, thousands and thousands. And after that I changed my goal and I changed my mind.
SFAB: What are your goals now?
BLR: In 2006 I met a guy who put a price on my work. It’s changed since then. It’s a new experience. Showing my work in galleries now is a different experience. It’s an incredible experience. After your life changes, you change your way.
SFAB: I’ve been reading quite a few interviews that feature you and something that comes up quite a bit is that you wanted to be famous. Do you feel that you’re famous now?
BLR: Not as much as I would like to be. (Laughs…) My goal is to continue to work and to show my work. I have many things to say. Not especially about the social context of society, but I have many things to say about what I believe in. I am very interested by the history of art and the way it is developing in the context of the street.
SFAB: Why do you think the street art phenomenon is so great? Where do you think it’s going to go?
BLR: The reason that most of the graffiti artists are working in the street is to be recognized in this society that is so anonymous. The city is very huge and you can stay ten years without any relation with another one. It’s very difficult to live in the city. So many people are looking for recognition and it’s a good way to show your work: to do something in the street: music, art, painting. Do it on the street and you are recognized very fast. I think that most people making street art have a need to be recognized. It was the same thing for me. I remember in the 70’s I travelled to the US very often and met people who played music on the east coast. I was very fascinated by the young Americans playing music and doing things. Everybody was practicing.
SFAB: You have stated several times that you feel that the street art movement is the most important movement in the history of art. You were there at its inception and have obviously been very influential. Are you one of the most important artists in the history of art?
BLR: No, because we can’t know. We can’t say that because we will see in 200 years if this moment was important. Maybe it will be completely forgotten in 100 years. It’s a very good experience in art and I hope that it’s going to stay for a long time, developing different schools and ways of expressing. For example, a lot of people are starting to dance in the street now.
SFAB: So, you see people becoming more liberated and you think that the street art movement is a part of that?
BLR: Yeah, probably yeah. And also it’s a rebel art. Many people coming from this art are rebelling against society, so it brings a lot of new thinking. The first goal of the street artist is to be famous, to be recognized by other people. That’s why they tag their name: to be recognized by their friends and by the world. It’s a little megalomaniac. People who work in the street are kind of megalomaniacs. They make huge pieces and they want to rule the world.
SFAB: Is there anyone that you look up to?
BLR: That’s something that happens when you are young. When I was young I was very influenced by the Pop art movement. Andy Warhol had a show in Paris. I was influenced by Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, Lichtenstein, people like that. I think that every street artist was influenced by Warhol in some way; Banksy, Shepard Fairy.
SFAB: Where do you draw inspiration from?
BLR: From my life usually. The best way to find inspiration is to take from your own life. Inspiration is not so difficult. It’s not so difficult to have ideas if you read the newspaper, or just to walk in the street.
SFAB: Do you try to be original with your style?
BLR: Yes, even when a lot of people are making stencil art. It’s difficult, but I try to have my own style.
SFAB: Do you think graffiti should be legal?
BLR: Yes, why not? It would be an interesting experience. Yes, of course. I would like for it to be legal. And also, this crime of making graffiti is not a huge crime. It’s not like attacking people in the street or selling drugs. It’s a small crime. So, I don’t understand why it’s so punished by the law. In France you can go to jail for two years for doing graffiti. And if you deal drugs in the street, you go for six months. It’s more the way the government sees street art. They are afraid of it.
BLR: Because when people put their work in the street they can say fuck the government, or they can say I’m gonna kill someone, crazy things also, so it’s dangerous. For example the Nazis used graffiti in 1933 to paint on the wall the Star of David on the stores in Berlin. It’s the same thing. It’s propaganda. It’s very dangerous.
SFAB: How do you feel about the transience of street art?
BLR: I think it’s good. It’s very important. It doesn’t have to stay. Our work doesn’t have to stay for a long time. It’s just for a moment. I don’t want to have the same thing on my wall every morning. I want change. I think two, three weeks is ok.
SFAB: Do you record your work?
BLR: Not always.
SFAB: As far as I can tell, you’re very aware of street are globally. Do you think that there’s a distinct difference in style between street art in America and in Europe?
BLR: Yes. European artists/young people are very influenced by the American style, and American fashion, and American music. Everything coming from the US is very appreciated, in France and Spain and everywhere. And so a lot of French artists try to have the same style as the American, but it doesn’t work very much, in my opinion. It’s only my opinion.
SFAB: Why doesn’t it work?
BLR: Because you have your own architecture and your own way of life here. You have different people from European people, completely different. I don’t think that it works very well to make a beautiful American piece in Paris. I think that the people who make tags and pieces in the street belong to the same family. But, we take different ways to express ourselves. I like a wall full of tags in Paris. It can be very beautiful. Deeply in my mind I would prefer if the French people could express themselves more, not trying to imitate what’s happening in the US. What you find in Europe is a fake American graffiti. It’s beautiful sometimes, but it seems fake compared to when you see it in New York, or when you see the same thing in San Francisco or Los Angeles.
SFAB: Why did Pompeii make an impression on you?
BLR: Because of the feeling you have when you are in the city. It’s very strange because everybody died in a few hours. And you feel the feeling of violent death very strongly everywhere. A massive amount of people died together. You can feel it. It’s very powerful with reference to art. The remains of the people and everything stayed absolutely in good condition, frescoes and the way that they were living, even dogs, statues of dogs. And so that’s the reason that I wanted to work on places like that, you know, where something very strong happened before. So I worked in Volubilis. It’s the same kind of city as Pompeii. It’s in Morocco and it’s smaller than Pompeii. I worked in this place in 2003. You see the way the people were living 2000 years ago. They were making lots of graffiti. People wrote their name or drew a boat or horses. You can find a lot of graffiti. It’s very cool.
SFAB: Is there anything else that you want to say?
BLR: I’m very happy to be here, to be recognized in the US. It’s very important to me. It’s something that I would never have imagined before; when I started in the ‘80’s, I would never have imagined. It took a long time, but when something must happen, it happens. Things happen at the right time.
Blek Le Rat, Last Tango in San Francisco, spray paint and acrylic on linen, 108 x 80 inches.
Blek Le Rat, The Duet, spray paint and acrylic on wood, 45 x 49 inches.
BLR: I made the pieces on wood here. I like to work in the country where I have a show. It’s very pleasant for me to go in different countries than mine and to work. I hate being a tourist. For me it’s a very good experience: preparing things, talking to people. I love that. I really love that. It’s absolutely great. It’s very important to have something to do when you travel. To work or meet people, living life in the same way.
Blek Le Rat, The Real Mona Lisa, spray paint and acrylic on linen, 78 x 78 inches.
SFAB: I really think that the Mona Lisa piece hits the nail on the head. It’s describing street art as an undeniably and essentially important movement in the history of art.
Blek Le Rat, In Tenderloin, spray paint and acrylic on linen, 72 x 80 inches.
BLR: This one is a police man who is working here in the Tenderloin (district of SF). He belongs to the anti-graffiti team. I met him. Some taggers from SF are going to tag it, which is very important to me: to have an exchange of work. I love to share my work with other people.
SFAB: The finished piece has about eight other writer’s tags on it. This is definately one of my favorite pieces from the show. It’s aesthetically beautiful and a big f-you to the anti-graf squad.
Blek Le Rat, Tribute to Taki 183, spray paint and acrylic on linen, 54 x 80.
BLR: It’s a tribute to Taki 183. He was one of the first graffiti artists in New York. This guy brought a lot of things to the world: a new way of thinking; a new way of expressing art.
SFAB: I have to say, that’s exactly the way that I feel about Blek Le Rat. He was an absolute pleasure to work with. He has not let any of his acclaim tarnish his demeanor that remains humble, open and kind.
This is the man himself standing with his piece entitlted What the Fuck, spray paint and acrylic on linen, 85 x 78 inches. Photo c/o Alan Bamberger at www.artbusiness.com. (Reviews at http://www.artbusiness.com/openings.html)
This historic show will be up at 941 Geary Gallery now through January 7th, 2012.