It's 8:30 a.m., and French street artist Xavier Prou — a.k.a. "Blek le Rat" — is surveying his latest stencil work: Curtain-sized canvasses populated by anarchists, cops, dancers, Napoleon, and the Mona Lisa, all in tableau at 941 Geary. Le Rat is happy to discuss them, but he pauses when the subject turns to British street artist Banksy. The two have never met, but they are forever linked — the progenitor (le Rat) and the inheritor (Banksy), whose brand-name works sell in the neighborhood of $1 million.
"He copied," says le Rat, standing in the middle of his "60/30" exhibit. "I'm not really happy — it took me a long time to find my own style — and then someone took my style, and he's more famous than me."
Without le Rat there would be no Banksy, who essentially appropriated le Rat's stencil style. Still, Banksy's celebrity has brought attention — and money — to other street artists, including le Rat.
"He knows how to manipulate the media, how to manipulate the art market. I don't," says le Rat. "But he put the graffiti movement at a level that I didn't put it. So, thank you, Banksy, for that. He took advantage of me, and I took advantage of him."
What Banksy got from le Rat is a throwback style — an emphasis on black-and-white or sepia-toned images that stand out on walls in the urban landscape. Three decades ago, when le Rat was first prowling the streets of Paris, scrawls, tags, and freakishly exaggerated drawings were the norm in street art. Le Rat helped introduce a visual language that was both quirky and humanistic. He chose the rat as his signature motif and distinguished himself with humorous stencils like Computer Man, a sports-shoe-wearing guy with a computer for a head. Le Rat also got political (the stencil U.S. Soldier, a military figure holding an automatic weapon), commented on social issues (Homeless, an older man prone and despondent on the street), and borrowed from the classics (Urban Angel, a winged, half-robed woman resembling Aphrodite).
Named for his age and the number of years he's been doing street art, le Rat's "60/30" show features new "characters" (his word), including several based on San Francisco street encounters. In Tenderloin depicts a police officer in the city's graffiti abatement program, while In the Streets of the Tenderloin showcases a young African-American man whom some might consider menacing. Le Rat has said his characters are "all like me in some way." That close identification with his subjects is one of his greatest strengths. He wants them to appeal to a wider audience yet still retain mystery. Shadows steep in le Rat's work, sneaking along the edges of legs and onto necks and spines.
As street-art's godfather, le Rat often is pressed for advice from young artists, and those in mid-career rush to work with him. Even Banksy has publicly credited le Rat's influence, once stating that "Every time I think I've painted something original I find out that Blek le Rat has done it as well, only 20 years earlier." Behind the scenes, though, a small feud has emerged. Le Rat tells me he has corresponded with Banksy via e-mail, and that Banksy has "insulted me. The last e-mail he sent me said something like, 'Blek, are you making fun of me? Stop saying that I take my ideas from you.'"
Le Rat won't back down, though. Why should he? He has persevered through greater struggles, including arrests by French police, facing judges, and providing for his family. A key to understanding le Rat's artwork is his family life. Le Rat became a father in 1993, which forced him, he says, to relinquish drugs ("not hard drugs. — I never took hard drugs; just smoking dope") and cavorting. Like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who would go home to his wife while Kerouac and his cohorts sauntered off into the night, le Rat found stability in his marriage. It has kept him working hard — and alive.
Too many street artists, like Basquiat, have died young. "They burn their life, we say in French, 'like a meteor,'" le Rat says. "You have to be stable tocontinue work."
Le Rat is soon smiling, though. It's in his nature to laugh off the vagaries of life, including his dealings with Banksy. And to keep watching, feeling, and working.