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A Rat's Life

By Published on .

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.

Dove of Peace
Dove of Peace
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.

Invisible Man
Invisible Man
"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.

"I think it's still the beginning because in the future, artists will understand that the street is the best way to get their art to the people," says Blek. "But it's still illegal just about everywhere in the world, so it's not quite accepted by all the people yet. The goal is to continue the (growing) acceptance of it. It's not an aggressive art, it's artists sharing with people to please them, not to say, Fuck you. And while many now receive street art as a gift, I think unfortunately, 80 percent of people still see it as an aggression."

Despite this fact, Blek believes urban art is one of the most important movements in the history of art based on just how global it has become, thanks largely to the role of the internet in quickly spreading the word on artists, styles and techniques.

"You can't find a city without graffiti," he says. "It's very public and touches millions and millions of people, even those who don't have an interest in art. When you leave images in the street, everyone can interact with them and that is a rare thing in the history of art. Even with Pop art, you had artists in France, England and the U.S., but not on the same global level as urban art. And now it's getting very organized, through the internet. It has such an influence on people and artists. It's the same sensation I was looking for when I started in the early '80s. I knew when I put my art on the street that people would see it. It's incredible. I don't know where the movement is going but we're living something very new."

Walking along Manhattan's Westside Highway, Blek points out a few pieces he's put up since arriving in town for the weekend, which are street versions of works exhibited in the nearby LeVine Gallery. He talks about how, as a street artist, being here in New York is like visiting a temple, then mentions some of the younger artists that inspire him, like Space Invader, Shepard Fairey, J.R., Swoon and yes, Banksy.

"I like Space Invader because he has his own technique and style," he says, pointing up to an elevated piece of signature tiles by the artist, created while the two worked together just nights before. "He is fearless. It took him almost 30 minutes to do that piece because he has to wait for the cement to dry. I put up my posters in 30 seconds because I'm so paranoid."

On the Run
On the Run
After New York Blek is off to Berlin for a show, then a Christie's auction in London at the end of the month. He returns to America next April for a solo show at San Francisco's White Walls Gallery.

Stopping to light a cigarette, Blek doesn't hesitate when asked if he might leave the streets for the gallery permanently. "I will never stop. Ever. Unless there was something wrong with my legs. But 30 years is a long time. It's a lifetime. This is my life."

And with that, the biggest rat New York has ever seen wanders off into the night.

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