“Have you ever made some graffiti?” asks Blek le Rat in his seductive French accent, his eyes drifting off dreamily towards exciting memories of his own. “Er, no,” I stutter back sheepishly, feeling like a kid at school who’s just been asked by an older boy if he’s ever gone all the way with a woman. “You have to try to do it once,” he sighs.
“Go once in the street with a spray can. Spray your signature. Then go back the day after to see. I’m sure you’ll go back. Because when you leave something in the street, you leave a part of yourself.”
Perhaps it’s the French accent. Perhaps it’s the excitement of finally tracking down the legendary Blek le Rat. But the prospect of careering through the streets of London spraying my name hither and thither suddenly feels extremely tempting. Had there been some spray cans in the room with us, I think I would have asked him there and then to lead me out and show me.
So this is what spraying graffiti does to a man. The rational bit of my brain might disapprove, but the irrational bit can’t wait to start. Blek le Rat, the smooth-tongued satan of stencil art, had imparted an important lesson. Inside all of us there appears to be a little chap with a spray can frantically signalling to be let out.
Right now, anything you learn about the urge to paint on walls is useful because there is no bigger cultural phenomenon abroad in the world than graffiti, or, to use its posher modern name, street art. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s taking over the planet. The outside of Tate Modern is currently plastered with the stuff. The prices it is fetching at Christie’s and Sotheby’s are head-scratchingly huge. Even Selfridges has begun auctioning it. And that is just in London.
Travel further afield, to Rio or Melbourne or Barcelona or Beijing, and you will discover entire slabs of city overtaken by it. Street art is currently the hottest potato in the pan. And a lot of that is down to Blek le Rat.
Don’t fret if you’ve never heard of him before. Few have. For most of his long career, Blek has been a shadow, a phantom, a myth. Pretty much all that anybody knew about him was that he came from Paris, and that he had been spraying graffiti since the early 1980s. His chosen style – stencil art – also happens to be the style favoured by the world’s most notorious street artist, Banksy. But Blek began using it two decades ago.
So in the annals of street art, he occupies a particularly important chapter reserved for pioneers. Blek is the great ancestor: the grandfather of stencils. And everybody in street art owes him a massive debt, especially Banksy, who owes him so much that it is sometimes difficult to tell the two of them apart.
Fortunately, underneath all the fierce urban posturing, Banksy is a soppy sort, and in his “unofficial biography”, due out next month, he duly heaps praise where praise is due. “Every time I think I’ve painted something original,” admits the stencil-king, “I find out that Blek le Rat has done it as well, only 20 years earlier.”
Actually, you need to go back much further than 20 years to get anywhere near the origins of graffiti art. You have to return to prehistory. I’ve seen naughty scratchings on cave walls that are at least 20,000 years old. Give someone an opportunity to scrawl something they shouldn’t, somewhere they oughtn’t, and in my experience the blighters will always take it. For instance, that well-known vandal, Lord Byron, appears not to have felt any pangs of conscience whatsoever about incising his name on a column in the ancient Temple of Poseidon, in Attica, where you can still read it. Byron couldn’t help himself: he had to let people know he’d been there. The same goes for those notorious Renaissance vandals Michelangelo and Raphael, both of whom sneaked down into the basement of Nero’s Golden House in Rome and signed themselves on the ruins.
Rewinding still further, to classical times, did the famous gladiator Celadus Crescens feel any remorse when he wrote on the walls of the gladiatorial academy in Pompeii that “Celadus makes girls sigh”. I doubt it. And I don’t think his fellow Pompeiian vandal, the chap who drew a penis on a street corner and then added the slogan “Handle with care”, felt particularly guilty either.
What I’m saying is that the urge to produce graffiti is a basic instinct. You can dismiss it as vandalism if you wish, and get council workers in to paint over it until the day that Vesuvius blows again, but I guarantee you will never stop it.