Graffiti art is dangerous business. Even if your goal isn't to tag the most forbidding surface possible—the top of a tall building, say, or the side of a subway car—there's still the matter of aggressive local law enforcement or the occasional disgruntled citizen. Blek le Rat has been making street art since 1981, and he's all too aware of the hazards. “I'm very paranoid when I'm working in the street,” he says. “Afraid of the cops, afraid of the people.” Blek le Rat, born Xavier Prou, met with me recently at Jonathan Levine Gallery, which will be hosting an exhibition of new works. With him when we spoke were his wife, Sybille (who occasionally helped translate), his son Alexander, and his son's girlfriend. We sat a table in the middle of the front room. Workers passed by throughout, helping set up for the upcoming show, Ignorance Is Bliss.
Paranoia Strikes Deep
Amidst the relaxed surroundings, Prou related some of his more harrowing experiences. “In 1987, I was in New York City, and I painted Jesus Christ on the sidewalk,” he began. This was at night, he explained, “and a guy came up to me, and started beating me—it was terrible.” It's hardly a good sign when you find yourself being assaulted for painting a portrait of the prince of peace. It's enough to make a man nervous. “After that, I start to be very paranoid,” Prou said, “in any city where I go. I don't want to have a problem with people. The problem is, the art is illegal art, so when someone comes to you and tells you, 'You know, this is illegal what you're doing,' what can you say? I can't justify it.”
Prou has developed strategies for avoiding risk. Many of his murals these days are publicly sanctioned—while in the city, he has already painted a mural in Bushwick. Moreover, he's begun to use posters, which can be not only put up quickly, but also taken down if he happens to attract the attention of local law enforcement. “It's a little different when you say to the police, 'OK, I can remove it immediately, I'm sorry sir, I can remove it.' So usually the cop says OK. It's not always the same thing. But if you paint with a spray can, it's a little bit more different, because you can't remove it.”
Prou has been arrested on several occasions – most recently in Buenos Aires, where the cops were particularly aggressive. “Something very funny,” he began, “I look a little Spanish, and they were absolutely sure that I could speak Spanish.” The risks clearly weigh on the artist. “It's a difficult job; difficult work. I have to say that I don't take any pleasure [working] in the street […] Some people are really happy to do it. When I do it I'm very paranoid.”
Works by Blek le Rat often make use of images from the classical and contemporary art canon, slyly manipulated: Andy Warhol's Elvis, stenciled on a wall; Michelangelo’s David, holding a rifle. In many of the paintings in the new exhibit, figures from famous paintings share the frame with small rats, mischievously tucked into a corner. The rats serve as tags, Prou's distinguishing mark.
It's usually seen as important that artists' work, rather than the artists themselves, come to the fore of discussion in criticism. Graffiti art dramatizes this to an even greater degree. What was a critical concern becomes practical: the artist has to be secretive, otherwise he or she might get arrested. Prou relishes this secrecy. “That's why I love to work in places where nobody can see me. Knowing the fact that the day after, I like when people see my work.”
That Blek le Rat's works incorporate images culled from the canon is a deliberate move. Prou positions himself as a kind of guerilla educator, “taking [art] from the museums and putting it in the streets.” The educator role came easily: in fact, the artist worked as a teacher for a decade. (I can little imagine any of my own high school teachers spending their nights tagging buildings—but I guess these were different times). Prou was addressing the apathy around him. “Really, galleries were empty. Only a few people – a few elite people – were interested in art when I was young.”
The internet is perhaps the most important technological advance since the spray paint can when it comes to making graffiti art visible. Prou points to the web as being instrumental to growing recognition of his own work, influencing and attracting attention from renowned artists like Banksy. Prou set up a website in the late '90s. The effect was transformative. Blek le Rat's stencils had been spread throughout the world for decades, tucked away in neglected corners of cities from continent to continent. Now, however, a Paris mural and a New York stencil could be viewed side-by-side; individual pieces could be considered as a collected body of work. With the click of a mouse, the rats came together.
Prou's features brightened when he spoke of the internet's possibilities. Reaching a global audience made all the hassles of his trade worthwhile. “I remember I started to receive emails from young kids living in the United States, 2001, 2002,” he recalls. “The first guy was from Chicago, he was about 16 years old, and he wrote to me and I said, 'Wow, it's incredible – some guy from Chicago, he knows my work!'