What is it that compels someone to commit an act of art? And what plants the seed of art in the first place?
For native Parisien Blek le Rat, it waz a place â€“ New York City, circa â€™71. â€œI remember graffiti painted with a marker, like nervous signatures with a crown all over NY,â€ says Blek, â€œand big letters filled with spirals and many colors.â€
This led to the inevitable question: â€œWhat does this mean? Why are they doing this?â€ But Blek didnâ€™t have an answer â€“ yet. He let his first impressions of graffiti marinate in his mind for 10 years.
While studying at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Blek was further inspired by the work of David Hockney, particularly the film â€œThe Bigger Splash,â€ wherein Hockney vividly paints a caricature of his friends on an apartment wall. â€œThis image never left my mind,â€ says Blek, who watched the film repeatedly.
With friend GÃ©rard Dumas, Blek decided to make his first move in October, â€™81. Inspired by the work of Italian fascist propaganda, the pair decided on using stencils, assuming the name â€œBlekâ€ as a reference to a childhood Italian comic strip, Blek le Rock. By winter, GÃ©rard had moved onto other things, and Blek le Rat waz born. â€œI was alone in the city, and the city waz mine,â€ says Blek. â€œI had the power to paint and to avoid all the middle-men who would judge my work with their values â€“ liberty, if you like.â€
Soon mastering the stencil technique, in â€™83 Blek found a picture of an old man with a peaked cap in a French newspaper, and used it for his first life-size stencil. Soon this character, called Buster Keaton, Charlot, or simply The Old Man, appeared in Paris and many other French cities. Photos of the Old Man stencils would appear in newspapers, often in articles unrelated to graf.
Blek feels a closeness with every one of his life-size stencils. Though they now number more than forty, â€œtheyâ€™re all like me in some way,â€ says Blek. â€œThey are introducing me to the world like someone would introduce themselves to another person.â€
As graffiti began to bloom in Paris, so did beef with the authorities. After his first arrest, Blek kept it moving, though now with a constant fear of arrest that has never left him. Regardless, â€œthereâ€™s nothing more exciting than working with frozen hands in the middle of a winterâ€™s night, when your heart is beating hard with fear,â€ he says.
Despite a short stay in the Tribunal de Grande Instance (Criminal Division) of Paris, Blek fortunately met a judge who, upon inspecting a photo of Blekâ€™s â€œcrime,â€ said â€œI canâ€™t condemn it â€“ itâ€™s too beautiful.â€
Since then, Parisien authorities have cracked down on graffiti, inventing laws and threatening punishments and fines far exceeding these so-called crimes. But Blek knows that graffiti will endure. â€œThere is no place in the world with no mural artistic traces,â€ he says. â€œEven in Peking, under the strongest regime, there is a man leaving his mark right at this moment.â€
And Blek has also come full-circle, answering his own question: Why are they doing this?
â€œThe graffiti movement,â€ he says, â€œhas no other intention than to speak via pictures. Words for the community, words of love, words of hatred, of life and death.â€
â€œItâ€™s just a fine and subtle kind of therapy and an attempt to fill the emptiness of this terrible world, to cover public space with pictures that people going to work can enjoy.â€