At some point in the last few decades’ graffiti has evolved into a completely different kind of beast. Instead of just being tags sprayed in under passes, those who held the cans have discovered that through their art, they could make more of a statement. Arguably graffiti has existed as long as humanity has, but the stencil subculture that is so readily associated with the modern street art scene didn’t properly come into existence until the late 60’s early 70’s.
So who was responsible? Given the fluid and guerrilla nature of the scene, you would think it would be hard to track down even one of the street art progenitors, let alone a handful of them. However, there are two artists in particular who are regarded as the spiritual fathers of stencil street art; John Fekner and the infamous, Blek le Rat.
John Fekner was a New Yorker and is responsible for some of the most acclaimed and recognised street art in the United States. His first piece of stencil art is thought to have been in 1968 when he stencilled the words “Itchycoo Park” at Gorman Park 85th Street Park in Jackson Heights, Queens. To most, it’s gibberish; however, it is actually the title of a track written and performed by British Mod band the Small Faces. It had more of an impact that he bargained for and the local American Football Team later changed their name to the Itchycoo Chiefs in 1970.
Throughout his career, Fekner strived to portray concepts of perception and transformation; these were usually politically driven. In 1979 he painted the words ‘Wheels Over Indian Trails’ on the Pulaski Bridge Queens Midtown Tunnel in New York. This piece of street art would greet commuters until 1990 when Fekner, who decided that the work had run its course, painted over it. Fekners work relied heavily on stencils though he branched into other forms of media, both visual and audio. His work was seen all over New York, usually in the form of slogans or bastardised street and warning signs.
However, while Fekner was leaving his mark in 1980’s Queens and The Bronx, Blek le Rat (born Xavier Prou) was plying his stencil trade in Paris. In a style that would later inspire the likes of Banksy, le Rat became known as the “grandfather of stencil graffiti”. Influenced by what was happening in New York, le Rat arguably brought the stencil street art scene to Europe with his unique brand of guerrilla stencil warfare.
He made extensive use of black rat stencils (obviously) but also parodied more well-known pieces of classical art, most notably Caravaggio’s Madonna and Child. Banksy, the poster boy of street art, has cited le Rat as an influence on a number of occasions and in response the French artist responded, “People say he copies me, but I don’t think so. I’m the old man, he’s the new kid, and if I’m an inspiration to an artist that good, I love it. I feel what he is doing in London is similar to the rock movement in the Sixties.”
Though this is only a brief insight into the fledgling beginnings of the street art scene, you can see how it continues to evolve and grow on one of our Street Art London Tours. East End Tours shows you the rarely seen and obscure parts of our capital. Particularly in the East End around Shoreditch and Hackney, there’s barely a day goes by without new artwork being produced. Full details of our tours can be found on the website but if you have any specific enquiries, please do not hesitate to get in touch.