Banksy has been quoted as saying: “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”. Blek was first inspired by graffiti on a trip to New York in 1972; at the time, graff art was only just in its infancy. It wasn’t until late 1981 that Blek started to create his own work, however, he encountered challenges; the ‘American style graffiti’ didn’t integrate well with the old architecture of Paris as that’s the essence of graff art – social context and the surrounding environment.
As a student of the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts Blek had studied classical forms of art and arrived the idea of using the old technique of pochoirs (stencils). At this point, the small black rats that are symbolic of Blek le Rat first adorned the walls of the 14th Arrondissement along with bananas, running red men and a self-portrait. Blek was quoted as saying that he choose the rat stencil as it seemed to him to be a symbol of the urban environment that was to be his canvas; furthermore, he said that rats are marginalised members of society and that they were the only animals said to survive an apocalypse.
Blek le Rat and Banksy
It was almost inevitable that when Banksy arrived on the street-art scene in early 2000 that he would be compared both favourably and unfavourably to Blek. What is a little less known fact, is that Banksy was an active member of the Bristol-based graffiti scene from about 1990 working with fellow local graff artists as part of the DryBreadZ Crew. At this time, Banksy was a freehand graff artist and only used the odd stencil for certain pieces of work. Once his first major free hand had been produced in 1999, the work entitled ‘Mild Mild West‘, his progression to cultural icon had started.
Where Blek and Banksy intertwined surrounded the subject of plagiarism; often stencil work of the two artists have appeared to be quite similar, see below:
If intended or not, a possible similarity could be drawn between the two pieces of work; whether this would actually be meaningful in any way other than Banksy being inspired by Blek, I’m not sure either man would comment or see the need to comment. Blek has a more conciliatory approach to the anti-establishment that emanates from street art; he was quoted in a newspaper article in 2008 as saying: “It is important that people recognise what we do, and accept it for what it is,” – and he went on to say – “It is art. Urban artists are forced to write on public property because there is a lack of space assigned to us.”
Thrashbird from the USA
Casting my eye over to the USA, I have been following the work of another ‘urban artist’ who goes by the name Thrashbird who also adopts the persona of complete incognito; similar to his UK cousin Banksy. Based in Los Angeles, Thrashbird has been described as an authentic contemporary street-art renegade – he classes himself as someone who simply uses “humour and subversion to dramatise significant issues that plague our society“. His ‘Clone’ is one of the most identifiable stencils that he has produced (see below); often seen in many places in the streets of LA, the figure is slouched over his phone, completely transfixed in the digital world as opposed to the real world.
Thrashbird has repeatedly sprayed this stencil onto pavements as opposed to sides of buildings to make the point that, if you see it, it’s likely to be because you are glued to your phone while passing by it – point proven some would say!
My personal favourites are where Thrashbird has made a statement for us all to see; like in the billboard he has adapted in the picture below; combining a statement with humour and the ironic message that pokes fun at the ‘reality TV’ generation.
Also, where he reminds us of our continued pursuit of consumerism in the stencil ‘You Need More Shit’;
; for me, Thrashbird’s lack of limitations are his biggest appeal as he will create works in rural surroundings turning sometimes derelict areas into works of art with a clear statement. Additionally, as street-art continues to be accepted into the ‘mainstream gallery’ community, Thrashbird also has a host of ‘for gallery‘ pieces that appear to be growing in popularity.
All these artists are inspirational, from Blek to Banksy to Thrashbird; individuals that are telling us about the world around us in the world around us! – in the very streets we walk and live in and not through some news streaming service, via Twitter or Facebook or some other ‘accredited’ and ‘un-bias’ new channel – they are connecting us to the environment we live in through both the visual and messaging of their work asking us to wake up and realise what and where we are.
I’m a regular graffiti hunter in around the streets of East London and any other place I travel to; this has included anywhere from the USA to Poland (more recently); you can check out all my posts on Instagram on the handle @lastnamejesus.