"HIS disciples call him ''the godfather'' of stencil graffiti, but for 58-year-old Parisian-born Blek le Rat - who takes his name from the small black rodents he painted around Paris some 30 years ago - it's a term of endearment rather than a title implying omnipotence."
''A British artist called Pure Evil gave me this name five years ago and it stayed,'' he says. ''My gallery in Paris calls me the grandfather, but you know, I still feel very young so this one is better.''
Blek, born Xavier Prou, is in Melbourne to open a retrospective of his work at Armadale's Metro Gallery. Yesterday, in recognition of Melbourne's vibrant street art culture, he left his mark in Hosier Lane with a stencil of his Man Who Walks Through Walls. A collaborative mural, it also drew on the talents of local artists Ha Ha, Vexta, Drew Funk and Reko Rennie.
Blek was a 28-year-old architecture student when he began painting rats in Paris.
''I wasn't interested in making art, only to have a voice. I lived in a small ground-floor apartment, I spent my days going to university and coming home. I didn't have many friends and I felt very isolated.
''The rats started as a way to have an identity, to prove I was living.''
Soon after, US artist Richard Hambleton - a veteran of the 1980s New York art scene that took in Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat - visited Paris, painting his ''Shadowman'' around the arrondissements. ''It was such an experience to walk down the street and be confronted by these figures. At that time there was no graffiti at all in Paris and the effect was very powerful.''
From rodents, Blek graduated to life-size stencil portraits, ranging from everyday figures such as The Running Man and Old Man with a Cane, to pop-culture figures Andy Warhol, musician Tom Waits and Princess Diana. Lurking on walls from Paris to Naples, Berlin, London, Buenos Aires, Prague and New York, they were, however, always more than pretty pictures. Appropriating characters from Caravaggio, Blek says he sought to take classical works from the rarefied spaces of galleries and museums to the streets, and the Everyman.
When the Iraq War began, Blek began stencilling his menacing American Soldier across France. ''When I started off with the rats, it was just fun. But then to realise street art could communicate with people on a deeper level, to have a powerful social purpose, was something else.''
One of Blek's more famous campaigns followed the kidnapping of French journalist Florence Aubenas in Iraq in 2005.
Stencilling her portrait around Paris, the works generated significant media attention. Blek appeared on radio and in newspaper interviews with politicians about the case.
The process, he says, presented him with insight into the kind of ''intermediary'' role he might play in raising public awareness about social issues. The artist's latest case is homelessness, which he addresses through depictions of beggars. ''It is a huge problem all over the world, in New York, Berlin, Mexico City - every city in the world. And it is absolutely unacceptable to have some people living like kings and other people starving to death.''
Metro Gallery presents a retrospective of Blek le Rat from December 9-24.
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