Artist to Know: Blek le Rat

Liz Catalano
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Screenprint from the “Godfather of Street Art” Offered in Signari Gallery Event

Before the 1980s, there was little precedent for the stenciled graffiti that is now a hallmark of street art. The global art scene of the 70s was exploring post-modernism when a 20-year-old Frenchman named Xavier Prou stumbled across a growing graffiti movement in New York. A decade later, Prou took what he learned and created his own brand of graffiti on the streets of Paris. He then renamed himself “Blek le Rat.”

Blek’s stenciled graffiti has inspired the likes of Banksy and other now-famous street artists. Though relatively unknown outside of France, Blek is frequently referred to as the “godfather of modern street art” (a title he gladly embraces). Most of his works can still be found publicly, but Blek’s prints and merchandise have also started to enter the art market.

Available in an upcoming Signari Gallery auction is a 2018 screenprint from Blek, offered at 12:00 PM PDT on August 1st, 2020. Before the bidding starts, learn more about Blek le Rat and his impact on contemporary street art.

Blek le Rat, The Man Who Walks Through Walls, 2008. Image from Blek le Rat.
Blek le Rat, The Man Who Walks Through Walls, 2008. Image from Blek le Rat.

Unlike many graffiti artists, Blek enjoyed a comfortable childhood. It was during his time at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris that he began engaging with street art. His first stencils showed rats engaging in various activities, an effort to show “the only free animal in the city.” The artist’s street name grew out of these early works, combining the name of a character from a 1950s French comic book with the anagram for “art.”

Blek kept his art apolitical at first, only exploring themes of freedom in a crowded city. Although his identity was revealed in 1991 after being arrested, he continued creating graffiti that blended high and low art. The early 2000s saw Blek’s entrance into public political commentary. The 2005 kidnapping of French journalist Florence Aubenas prompted a broad cultural response, fanned in part by Blek’s widespread activism. Later themes in his art have included homelessness, war, religion, the economy, and art history. Works from this political period perform best at auction, reflecting Blek’s maturity and movement toward socially-engaged themes.

His famous self-portrait titled The Man Who Walks Through Walls is also popular, appearing in two record-setting Bonhams sales in 2008. The first offered a signed and dated spray-painted canvas edition of the piece, selling for USD 16,772 with the buyer’s premium. Later that year, another edition reached $15,248. The self-portrait places Blek’s head on the body of one of his favorite actors.

Blek le Rat, The Last Tango à Paris, 2016. Image from Artcurial.
Blek le Rat, The Last Tango à Paris, 2016. Image from Artcurial.

As urban art has become more popular, Blek’s fame has lagged behind that of other leaders in the movement. Many of his larger and more recognizable works have sold for approximately $25,000, with some crossing that threshold. Among these is a spray paint on plaster piece sold at Christie’s for GBP 21,250 (USD 27,000) in 2008. More recently, Blek’s The Last Tango à Paris was offered in a 2019 Artcurial sale. The hammer price of EUR 49,400 (USD 57,200) nearly reached the high estimate of EUR 50,000 (USD 57,900). Smaller prints are typically listed with estimates under $5,000.

These prices have remained consistent in recent years, yet remain much lower than those achieved by Banksy and Shepard Fairey. The two younger artists have openly drawn inspiration from Blek, translating some of his styles to commercial success. However, a level of mutual respect remains. “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,” Banksy famously lamented.

Blek has acknowledged this disparity, attributing it to the appropriative nature of street art. “As an artist I do not think that we truly invent anything at this point,” he said in an interview. “I do not believe in the painter who says I invent this or that. It does not exist anymore. It is just how you do it that makes it different than others.”

Blek le Rat, The Warrior, 2018. Image from Signari Gallery, LLC.
Blek le Rat, The Warrior, 2018. Image from Signari Gallery, LLC.

Available in the upcoming Signari Gallery event is a screenprint of Blek’s The Warrior, printed as a limited edition in 2018 ($1,200 – $1,500). The piece shows the artist’s signature rat holding a rifle with a blue daisy tucked in the barrel. It is signed and numbered in one corner and includes a certificate of authenticity issued by Blek. Bidding for this print will begin at $350.

Although Blek spends less time on the streets of Paris than he used to, he has no plans of stopping his work. “There is no retirement for artists,” he told Street Art News in 2017. “I gave the half of my life to this art and I will continue until the end.”

For more information on the Blek le Rat work and other pieces of street art, visit Invaluable. Live bidding will begin at 12:00 PM PDT on August 1st, 2020.

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