Blek le Rat: This is not a Banksy

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

It may look like the work of the secretive Briton who's hot property across the globe but this is actually by the French street artist Blek le Rat. And he's been bringing his brand of politicised graffiti to a wall near you for almost 30 years. Here we publish a selection of his iconic images. Words by Charlotte Philby

The media furore surrounding the identity of the street artist Banksy has pushed an underground culture out of the shadows and into the limelight. For years, the suggestion that graffiti might be considered a valid art-form has been received with splutters of indignation from the established art world and public alike.

Now, with auction houses aflutter at the prospect of bagging a work by the elusive Bristolian, and Brad Pitt among those eagerly queuing to pay tens of thousands of pounds for a piece, even the most entrenched critics are being forced to re-evaluate their position on the subject of that formerly dirty word.

Late last year a grainy photo of a crouched figure in front of a wall filled news pages and news channels alike, below the headline: "Is This Banksy?" Such is the hype surrounding the shadow that creeps in the night, that Banksy – in his absence – has been crowned the Daddy of anti-Establishment street art.

Yet, if Banksy is indeed the Daddy of politically-conscious graffiti, let me introduce the Godfather, Blek Le Rat. The 56-year-old Frenchman was stencilling city walls while Banksy was getting to grips with crayons.

Motivated by social consciousness and a desire to bring the art to the people, Blek Le Rat's political agenda is clear. And while parallels are drawn between his work and that of his British counterpart, Le Rat's identity is not a matter of national debate.

Born Xavier Prou in a "high bourgeois" district of Paris in 1952, the revered street artist fails to match almost any of the well-cultivated stereotypes involving Nike tracksuits and raging hormones.

With a mild manner and unkempt locks, he would look more at home helping an elderly lady on to a bus than roaming the streets wielding a spraycan. But then Prou is not one to fit comfortably into boxes.

Prou's parents – his father an architect, and his mother the daughter of a French consul in Thailand – insisted on living in one of the most bourgeois suburbs of Paris, Boulogne, and sending him to the best private school.

"It wasn't until the summer of 1968," Prou explains, "that I met people from other backgrounds. Before that I had never left my immediate area, let alone travelled to working-class districts".

That summer, aged 17, he left Boulogne to study etching, lithography and painting at Paris's equivalent of the Royal Academy, L'Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, before taking a further degree, in architecture.

"At university," he explains, "my teachers were Trotskyites, revolutionaries; they taught me much more than pure art. I was learning about another world."

Studying architecture, he explains, taught him how to understand an urban landscape and how to see the space around him. This, combined with the "illumination" that came with discovering a new world of politics and sociological awareness, and his earlier studies in lithography and painting, made street art an obvious outlet for his talents: and so, in 1981, he began to combine his skills, to express his thoughts and create art for the masses.

Prou prefers to talk about urban art rather than "graffiti". The latter term, he acknowledges, is bound with negative and misleading connotations.

"My stencils are a present, introducing people to the world of art, loaded with a political message. This movement is the democratisation of art: if the people cannot come to the gallery, we bring the gallery to the people!"

Before tackling huge stencils such as those bearing his signature across cities worldwide, he laced the streets of Paris with what has become his signature piece, an oversized rat.

Not the most attractive of animals, I wonder why he chose this rodent. "The rat is not just the only wild animal living in pretty much all cities, but within the word rat, there lies art. I like this anagram," he smiles.

"It is the shadow of a rat, not the actual beast," Prou continues. "And these are placedto look as if they are taking over the city. For me, this idea has become quite an obsession. It is about uprising, a signal of rebellion. It's our revolution."

Charged with political sentiment, his work often adopts dark humour. In 1984, as tensions preceding the fall of the Berlin Wall infiltrated the French capital, Prou was gathering his own ammunition.

"That summer, everyone was so worried about Russian soldiers invading that there was a constant look-out for tanks.

"As the streets lay empty at night," he remembers, "I attacked the city with stencils of Russian soldiers, a message to the people when they returned: the Soviets have already arrived! I relieve paranoia through humour."

It is the marriage of political commentary and humorous imagery that Banksy has adopted from Blek Le Rat, but Prou is equally grateful for what Banksy has done for urban art.

"It is important that people recognise what we do, and accept it for what it is," he states. "It is art. Urban artists are forced to write on public property because there is a lack of space assigned to us."

Would he limit himself to legal territory if space were provided by councils? "Urban art is there to be inclusive. By bringing our work to the masses within the urban landscape, on the streets, we are including everyone."

"So what we need," he says with passion, "is allocated walls throughout the city, on which we can express ourselves.

"Kids who would never go to a show see our work in the street and are inspired to express themselves through art rather than turning to vandalism or repressing their voices."

Prou's commitment to his cause is clear, and yet until recently graffiti was widely considered, at best, an inarticulate form of low-culture, at worst, the pastime of spotty teenagers intent on destruction.

But, as the Big 6-0 draws ever closer, does he ever wonder if he is getting too old for this lark? Never. "This movement," he says, "is the single most important movement for the future of art. We can compare it to the rock'n'roll movement in the Sixties. It signifies a social change which is gathering momentum.

"Conceptual art is designed for those who understand philosophy and the history of art, so it will always be exclusive. What we are doing is breaking down the walls. This movement is my life, and you are never too old to follow your passion."

'Blek Le Rat: Getting Through Walls' is published by Thames & Hudson, £11.95. To order a copy at a special price, including p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897. Blek Le Rat exhibits at the Black Rat Press Gallery, London EC2, from 9 May,, and stencils the side of the Michelin Building, London SW3 on 7 May, from 4pm

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own