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New York City has its fair share of sizable rats. So it's no casual boast to say that standing on the corner of West 22nd Street and 7th Avenue on a brisk October afternoon is easily the biggest rat Manhattan has ever seen. But this specimen isn't the same species as the bulk of the city's rat population– Rattus norvegicus. This rat is French.
In Manhattan for his first solo show at the Jonathan LeVine Gallery, and only his second in North America, 56-year-old Xavier Prou doesn't exactly fit the sartorial stereotype of a street artist. In fact, dressed in a very practical light ski jacket, blue oxford shirt and red sneakers, he looks more like the high school art teacher he once was. In 1981, a decade after being inspired by the graffiti he saw on his first trip to New York, Prou began painting stencils around his home city of Paris while still an architecture student. Soon, thousands of little black rats covered the French capital, marking Prou's transformation into Blek Le Rat.
The LeVine Gallery show, dubbed "Paris – New York, New York – Paris," features all new works, including a tribute to a British stencil artist who's played a large part in Blek's recent success. The piece, called "Invisible Man," portrays a cloaked figure alongside Banksy's signature with a question mark. It's meant as a respectful nod to the artist who's managed to become world famous and yet remain almost completely anonymous.
"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." Just one quote from Banksy, but enough to lend perspective to more than two decades of Blek's work. And while some may expect a certain level of jealously from the lesser known elder towards his younger — wealthy and world famous — counterpart, Blek dismisses such notions outright.
"His quote about my work was very important in my career as an artist," says Blek. "Before that, I wasn't really known at all. People knew my work but not to the same extent. I really like his work and he likes mine. Without him, I would not be here. But without me, he would not be here. So it's a nice exchange. In the career of an artist, it's sometimes hard to imagine how things can change so quickly."
The name "Blek Le Rat" comes from an old comic Prou read as a kid called "Blek Le Roc;" while the rodent reference is a sly re-working of the word "art" and indicates a certain respect for one of the only urban wild animals. Now widely recognized as a street art pioneer, particularly in the use of stencils, Blek is known for such life-sized works as the screaming Irishman, David with a gun and a well-publicized postering project to draw attention to French journalist Florence Aubenas' 2005 abduction in Iraq. He counts past stencil work in Italian and South American propaganda, as well as artists Richard Hamilton and John Fekner as early influences. And despite his long history of art in the streets, he says the movement itself is still just beginning.