The godfather of street art would like to collaborate with the elusive Bristol born artist Banksy. Helen Soteriou went to meet the pioneer of the graffiti movement for coffee outside the Cathedral De Notre Dame in Paris.
Can you tell me about your background. Do you remember the first stencil you created and the first time you sprayed it on the wall?
I studied etching not far from here at the L’Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, the equivalent of the Royal Academy in London, before taking a further degree in architecture.
I took my Diploma in Architecture on a playground in the suburb of Paris. It was 1980. At that time I saw some young kids stealing paints and brushes from a supermarket just behind the playground and they used to come to the playground and paint on the walls… and I saw these young kids paint every day as they used to steal brushes everyday, and I told my friend Gerald ‘I want to be like those kids’. …and at that time in Paris there was no graffiti.
I remember the first time we did it. It was in a suburb of the city. The first time we started we tried to make American graffiti like ‘peace’ but we did not have the techniques so it was very bad. I told my friend that we had to make stencils, at that time you used a brush and paint but I had the idea to use spray cans. I did not invent anything. I took ideas from everywhere. The only thing I did was combine things together.
Do you have a favourite image?
Usually the last image is my favourite, but I really like my self-portrait. This art is global art and I am travelling all over the world.
The meaning of this image is very important to me. It is like a man going through the walls. He is travelling from one wall to Paris to London to New York.
Everyone has a different take-home message with your images. They mean different things to different people. Do you have any inspiring stories in response to your images?
I have had a lot of feedback from the homeless image. I think this form of street art should be more orientated towards the social and political problems of our society. Usually street artists express themselves and their own feelings.
People really appreciate it when you talk about something that they know or they are aware of, more than if you talk about violence or say the police. If you talk about something that the people are involved with, they appreciate the work more.
There are many artists who say you are the inspiration for their work, but who inspires you?
Many people inspire me. We are the result of what we have seen before.
I would say I was very influenced by pop art. I was very influenced by the Italian painters from the renaissance, by French writers like Celine . I was very influenced by rock music in the early ‘70s….I was very influenced by American culture and British culture too.
We are the mix of 1000 different things, so it is difficult to say that I was influenced by one guy. I was not influenced by one guy but by a mixture of things.
How do you feel when people like Banksy say that you were their inspiration?
Banksy’s work is a result of what he has seen.
He has a friend called Tristan Manco from Bristol who was really influenced by street art in France in the 80’s, and Tristan Manco showed my work to Banksy at the end of the 90’s, so I think he was influenced by my work by the way of Tristan Manco.
I like his work very much. He is young and knows how to manipulate the media. A very strong guy and a very good artist. Banksy bought something very strong.
It is amazing. I don’t know how old he is, 30 or 40? or where he grew-up. He is working on a movie right now. He asked me to send him some jpegs of my work. I am probably going to be in the movie. It would be a good experience too.
I would really like to meet him. I think we have many things in common.
How do you feel about the limited edition prints being sold for huge amounts of money?
Screen prints are not so expensive. It is expensive, yes, but not SO expensive. Mine are about £100. One large painting costs about £10,000. Prints are for everybody…but I understand. It takes a long time to make £100.
In my opinion, I would say when you leave something in the street it is for everybody but if you want to own something it is different. In my life, I bought things from the other artists. It is a pleasure to have something in your apartment.
Have you collaborated with any other artists, and if not, is there anyone you would like to collaborate with?
I would like to make something with Banksy.
What does the future hold for Blek le Rat? Do you have any shows coming up?
I have a big show in Melbourne on the 3rd December and I am working on this all summer. In October I go to Mexico to make graffiti, and there is going to be a show in San Francisco next May in the White Walls gallery.
My dream would be to work on Alexander the Great. For me, he was the man who bought the Greek culture to India. My dream would be to work on his life. He was born in Macedonia, and actually Macedonia still belongs to Greece right now. So I would like to work in the place that he was born. And then I want to make all these trips from Macedonia to India, to paste posters at each place where he stayed and where he died.
I have to do it before I die. This has been my dream since I was 20 years old.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
In my opinion this is the most important movement of art, because it is a global art, it is everywhere, all over the world, even in China, in Beijing. Is means something, and I’m very proud to belong to this movement.
When I see my friends from the Beaux-Arts school who took a different way, they make conceptual art now and they are 50 years old, they realise they took the wrong way. It is hard for an artist of 50 – 60 years old to realise they went the wrong way. I am sure I took the right way. Street art is the only way to express for an artist.
I am sure that we belong to the evolution of the change of art. It is a pity is is not recognised by the establishment of art.
You have the recognition of the people, and to have that connection, rather than have a few people decide what is worthy or not, is more special I think?
Yes, you are right. But I belong to the old school and when I grew-up the museum was very important…when I was young I wanted to be recognised. But now I realise it is not so important. To be recognised by the people is very important, you are absolutely right.