Blek le Rat is known to many as the godfather of street art and to the French as its grandfather. But having honed his craft for more than 30 years, the spry 61-year-old, whose real name is Xavier Prou, has no intention of retiring. Despite being France's graffiti art pioneer (he says he was the second to make street art in Paris, after Zloty Kamien), he is most famous for being the artist whose style the pseudonymous Banksy "stole". Blek's spray-painted stencils of rats first appeared on the banks of Seine when Banksy, who is thought to be nearly 40, was still at primary school. In his unauthorised biography Banksy said: "Every time I think I've painted something slightly original, I find out that Blek le Rat has done it as well, only 20 years earlier."
For a while, Blek and Banksy were appreciative of each other. But the graffiti world revels in spats between its giants and Banksy is not one to keep matey with his rivals for long. During an interview with Blek at his family home, an hour's drive east of Paris, he showed me emails from Banksy that accuse Blek of mocking him. "The last email he sent me said, "Blek, are you making fun of me? Stop saying I take my ideas from you'." Blek, dubbed by the British press as "Banquesy", is frustrated by the exchange and says he cannot reconcile how he feels about the rivalry.
That his signature style has been taken and made more recognisable, not to mention profitable, by another artist, is "very emotional", he says. He has expressed his anger, both on Channel 4's Graffiti Wars documentary and in interviews. But these days, he is more resigned to the comparison and remarks, sadly, that whatever he says about Banksy it will be taken out of context and he will be accused of jealousy.
"It's difficult because on the one hand I'm very happy: without Banksy I would not have the position I occupy in the street art movement. I'm recognised in the US, UK, Australia and around the world. It helps me make a living. It's great! But on the other hand, I [have] seen how he manipulates the art market. I can see that we probably needed someone who could do this for street art, like Damien Hirst did for conceptual art, so it's very interesting. But it does make me uncomfortable."
An exhibition charting Blek's 30-year career curated by Jean-David Malat, opens at the Opera Gallery in London on Friday. The graffiti movement is often associated with artists from working-class backgrounds who are unlikely to have studied at art school but instead perfected their craft while avoidingarrest for vandalism.
Blek, who grew up in the rather swanky 16th arrondissement of Paris and studied at the prestigious Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts (first fine art, then architecture), is not of this ilk. But that's not to say that introducing street art to Paris, or making a name for himself, has been easy. "The first time I saw graffiti art was in New York. I was 21 and had been invited by an American friend who studied with me at university. I worked for three months to save the airfare and when I got there I was amazed. It was July 1971 so it was hippie time. The streets were full of art, music, and political protest against the Vietnam war." He found the contrast to France extraordinary. "You can't imagine what Paris was like then. It was like the 19th century. There was nothing for young people, no music, no art."
The 20-year-old Blek was confused by the tags he saw in the subway. "I asked my friend, 'Why are people doing this?' Writing their names? I had seen political slogans painted on walls in Paris, of course, but this had no obvious purpose."
Returning to Paris with the kernel of an idea, Blek asked his art school friends if they'd be interested in trying some graffiti. They weren't. It would take another decade for this burst of inspiration to find form.
He spent the years between his architectural studies and his emergence as one of the most exciting graffiti artists as a teacher. At Adventureland, an after-school club where he worked in 1980, Blek watched children steal paint and brushes from a supermarket to decorate the walls of an old warehouse. "I knew I had to make graffiti because the kids were already doing it. Kids of seven years old gave me the idea."
His first attempt didn't go very well. "The first time I tried, in 1981, I tried to imitate American-style graffiti, but I found the technique very difficult. The result was terrible." So he drew on his etching and printmaking training, as well as a more unorthodox inspiration.
"When I was a kid I made a trip with my parents to Padua, Italy, and I saw graffiti there made by the Fascists. The faces of Mussolini stencilled in the street stayed with me."
Blek started with rat stencils to emphasise his new name, a play on 1960s comic character Blek le Roc, but also because there was something ratty about an artist who scuttles around after dark. "I wanted to say to Parisians, 'Your city is very beautiful, but don't forget that your basements are full of vermin'." He is glad of his pioneerstatus butashamed of the money-grabbing nature of modern artists. "The art world is a big mess," he says. "Nobody cares who is a real artist. It is all about cheating people out of money."
Blek predicts a revolution in street art. "The movement started 40 years ago in the US, but we are still only at the beginning. Artists will find new ways to display and sell their work that will have nothing to do with galleries and investors." Until then? "I'll keep working. But only on public walls. I'm too old for illegal ones."
Blek le Rat, Opera Gallery, London W1 (020 7491 2999; operagallery.com) 27 April to 18 May