Blek Le Rat!
A city at night can be desolate and a little disconcerting. Occasionally a stray dog passes or a policeman smokes a cigarette on a corner lit only by a single street lamp. It is a scene from a film noir movie that would make anyone squeamish about what may proceed.
Among the shadows you may find homeless stragglers or scuttling rats, but suddenly, another figure slinks by. At 1am, a hooded man creeps up to a freshly painted wall and, with the speed of a seasoned artist, squeezes paint from his aerosol can onto his concrete canvas.
But this hooded figure is not what you might expect - he's no young delinquent, scrawling his unintelligible signature. Quite the opposite: he's an old philosopher, telling a story with an image so that when morning comes, passers-by will admire his creation and take in its political or social message. He is Blek le Rat.
In 1954, as the French-Algerian war began, Xavier Prou was a toddler living near the River Seine in Paris with his parents - his father an architect and his mother, the daughter of a French consul in Thailand. His father went off to the war, just as he had done during World War II ten years prior and his grandfather had done during the Great War. The world in which he was raised seemed to be constantly at war.
When Prou was old enough to see what was really going on around him, he began to notice the fighting, politics and social issues. One of his first memories, at seven, was of graffiti-stained walls in Paris.
Back then, "we only had political graffiti," says Prou. "There was a lot of graffiti painted with brushes: 'French Algeria,' painted by people who wanted Algeria to belong to France, and 'Leave Algeria to the Algerians,' by those against the war."
Long after the war ended, Prou went to study at the Beaux Arts School in Paris, where he began to create. He would have discussions with his classmates about the problems artists faced, getting into galleries or selling their works to collectors. "If you don't have a connection, it's impossible to show your work."
It wasn't until he went to New York that year that he saw an alternative: bringing his work to the public through image-based graffiti. He returned to Paris and began making graffiti in his own style. This new style involved using a stencil to replicate the same image in different parts of the city. He started with a rat, because "rats are the only wild animals living in cities, and only rats will survive when the human race disappears."
In an interview with The Independent, Prou described his rat as "the shadow of a rat, not the actual creature. And they are positioned to look as if they are taking over the city. For me, this idea has become quite an obsession. It is about uprising, a sign of rebellion. It's our revolution."
It was at this time that Prou devised his name: Blek le Rat, a play on a French cartoon called Blek le Roc from the 1950s that starred Blek, a trapper from the American Revolutionary War who led a group to fight against the oppressive British Redcoats. Prou liked the idea, but added his own "Rat," in reference to his stencilled rats and as an anagram of "art".
Stop the war
Though Prou deals with many social and political issues in his artwork, his most prevalent theme is the presence of war.
"I'm very influenced by war," declares Prou. "I was born just six years after [World War II] and all my life I've been aware that somewhere there has been a war in the world. For me it is very important to say to people, Stop the War."
His first political statement was made with a stencil of an Irishman, yelling at British soldiers who are nervously pointing their guns at possible IRA members. This image is sometimes mistaken for Buster Keaton or Chaplin, or even an anarchist. He likes the fact that his images are interpreted in different ways.
In 1984, in the midst of the Cold War, the French people were extremely worried about a potential Russian invasion. "I remember, the paranoia was incredible in Paris at that time," says Prou.
As the French left Paris in droves for their annual summer getaway, Prou stayed behind and took advantage
of the empty streets. Each night he went out and began painting Russian soldiers on the walls of Paris and on the highways entering the city. When he had finished, he had completed hundreds of stencils, shocking the French people as they returned from their holidays.
"Some people realised it was a joke," states Prou. "And some people thought it was an act of aggression against the French. It was a strange reaction. There was even a film with Gerard Depardieu, where they filmed the stencils and added a big dick on the soldier."
Like the rats, his soldiers became shadows too: a lasting impression of the effects of war and the remembrance of those lost. He has made a lot of different soldiers since then - GIs, Russians, Riot Police, and others in uniform. His message: "Stop the Violence, Stop the War".
Home is where the heart is
In addition to Prou's themes of war, another common topic is his attitude toward the homeless.
"When I was six," Prou recalls, "we had a dog and we'd walk him along the river where the homeless people were. And I couldn't understand how people could live outside like that - during winter and summer - all of the time. I was a kid: naĂŻve, discovering the world."
With tens of thousands of homeless people on the streets, he decided to do something about it and make the issue plain for Parisians to see.
"We live in the city, homeless people live in front of you, and you don't want to see them," asserts Prou. "You see them lying on the streets and you don't want to see them. So I'm going to paint them on the streets, to tell you to be aware of this problem and that we can do something."
In 2006, Prou painted various homeless characters all over Paris, London, New York, and Mexico City. He received a fantastic response, and the proceeds from some of his paintings in London went to the homeless community there.
Sticking to the shadows
Graffiti has always been considered a subversive art form. In 1970s Paris, the image of a true artist was someone who worked alone in the studio, suffering, drinking alcohol - the myth of the artist. Prou says that many people from his generation are still like that. Looking back now, all of his friends from art school are no longer friends, and they "all think that what I'm doing is bullshit," acknowledges Prou. "They consider themselves real artists."
But everything has changed in the last ten years.
"We are at a turning point in the concept of art. You see people like Banksy, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons who don't paint or draw; they just give the idea to others who complete the painting or sculpture for them. They don't produce their own artwork."
"Not with my generation," he declares. "I don't do that. I'm still an old-school guy, making everything from start to finish."
However, he acknowledges that Sybille, his wife of 21 years, who has been an incredible supporter of his work and constantly pushes him to create, has often helped him to put up his pieces. Making street art, though, is certainly not the usual form of artistic production, and creating something in public where unsuspecting critics roam wild can result in some dangerous situations.
"When I'm working on the street, I'm very paranoid," says Prou. "I stay in the place I'm working for a very short time. I'm afraid I'll be caught by the police or seen by people."
In fact, Prou was once beaten up in New York, in 1987. He was painting on the sidewalk near the Leo Castelli Gallery at about 1am, when a stranger came up to him and started to hit him. And in 1991, he was discovered by the policed when he was caught stencilling a replica of Caravaggio's Madonna and Child. Since then, he's relied upon pre-stencilled posters that are quicker to apply and don't result in the aggressive sentencing of paint graffiti.
Sometimes, though, he receives positive attention. In 2005, Prou stencilled the image of Florence Aubenas, a French journalist who was kidnapped in Iraq. He pasted 100 posters of her image all over Paris and, surprisingly, received a positive reaction.
"I remember people recognising me, stopping their car and jumping out saying, 'Blek! This is great work you are doing for this woman - it is very brave'," he recalls.
"When people understand what you are doing, the reaction is positive," states Prou. "When you talk about something personal or a social problem that people don't understand, their reaction can be very bad. When I was working for the homeless, the reaction was very positive because people understood what I was doing."
Present and personal
This year Xavier Prou turned 60, and he has begun to reflect upon his past and how he wants to spend his remaining years. He has started to use new imagery, paying tribute to painters that have influenced him, from as far back as the Renaissance to more modern painters like Andy Warhol or David Hockney, whom he met at the age of 20.
"Now I am living out my final years," says Prou, "it's important to remember what was important throughout my life."
Among his recent interests, Prou has been following a few artists that he admires: Mark Jenkins, Slinkachu, Shepard Fairey, Pure Evil, Apex. He even likes quick signature 'tags', finding comfort in a wall filled with different lines of different colours - a true reflection of our time, he says.
Prou is still very active in his field, and is now producing exhibitions in various galleries around the world. He can even be seen late at night, pasting his posters on the streets of Paris.
"I think people think it's strange," he says. "They never talk to me about my age. I'm pretty sure that they think I'm crazy." On the streets of Paris, London, New York, Mexico City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Melbourne, and many more.
Where to see his work
Opera Gallery, Paris, France