Sometimes a rat will bring others behind it, and when it comes to the Banksy street art painting “Haight Street Rat” on display in Waco, that’s a good thing.
The rat following “Haight Street Rat” is French street artist Blek le Rat, a pioneer in street art stenciling, and he will be in Waco this week to paint on six downtown buildings.
It is a spray-painted exclamation point to the Banksy art’s Waco showing at downtown’s Cultivate 7twelve, an exhibition whose public response not only led to a six-week extension, but impressed street art advocate, art collector and producer Brian Greif to bring Blek le Rat, given name Xavier Prou, to Waco.
“Waco definitely has been one of my favorite places. The people have been so kind and generous with their time. And they fed me well,” Greif said in a phone interview from Nashville. “It was a great experience, and Waco’s a city I would love to do more in.”
An example of more comes with Blek’s visit to Waco, a stop Greif added to the French artist’s planned appearances in Houston and Austin.
Greif and Blek will meet with the public and sign books from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Cultivate 7twelve, 712 Austin Ave., in the “Haight Street Rat’s” final day in Waco. Greif’s remarks on Wednesday will point out Blek’s importance in the street art movement.
“He really started the stencil movement. You see his influence in works by Banksy and Shepard Fairey,” Greif said. “It’s important that people understand (Blek’s) importance in the art world in general and not only in street art.”
Blek, 67, has done street art for more than 30 years, starting in his native Paris and extending around the world. He is happy to add Waco to his list of cities with Blek pieces and happier that smaller cities are eagerly embracing street art.
“It’s important for me to work in every city in the United States,” said Blek, speaking from Nashville where Greif is presently based. “To work in New York, San Francisco, Chicago — there is no interest any more in street art. In smaller cities the response of the people is happy.”
Blek will bring his set of stencils to Waco.
“I will probably bring some rats (his visual signature) and also some big characters, people, portraits of Picasso and musicians,” he said.
He will also work in black and white — a necessity in urban environments filled with color from cars, buildings and billboards, he said.
“It’s important to be in black and white in the streets so people will see it,” he said.
While some street artists like the secretive British artist Banksy prefer to work at night and semi-anonymously, Blek said those days are behind him.
“I don’t work illegally any more. I ask the permission of the building owners before I work,” he said. “I’m 67 years old. I’m too old to run when the police come.”
Working openly and in daylight, and legally, lets bystanders watch and comment, which delights the Parisian artist.
“I love to have people around me and (I) talk with them,” he said.
Painting openly also allows time to correct mistakes and fine-tune a piece without feeling the tension of a possible police interruption. “It’s really better,” he said.
Blek’s Waco street art will be his gift to the city, a peaceful offering in a violent time and part of Blek’s belief that street art has truly democratized art by removing barriers of access.
“We are leaving something unique in the story of art,” he said. “At this turning point, this street art is meant for the people.”
It’s Blek’s first time back in Texas since two visits in the 1970s and, as he does whenever he paints, he plans to leave something of himself behind, although he does not specify what that might be.
One of the places he’ll be painting is the Art Center of Waco’s downtown location, which delighted director Claire Sexton. The center recently acquired a house next to its South Eighth Street location, and Blek’s work will face the alley separating the two buildings, Sexton said.
While renovation and occupation of the center is still ahead — fundraising for the building’s purchase and initial renovation is about one-third of the way to its goal, the director said — it will open with a piece by an internationally known artist on display. “I’m so excited,” Sexton said.
The other Blek sites will be revealed on Creative Waco’s Facebook and Instagram pages — four planned for Tuesday, two for Wednesday — although Creative Waco director Fiona Bond said they are businesses in the Downtown Waco Cultural District.
“They’re places that will benefit from a trail of Blek,” she said.
The Banksy exhibit leaves Waco, but after raising the city’s artistic image in and outside Waco, Bond said.
“It has really put Waco on the map. … We are now being contacted when opportunities come along, people who are interested in artwork on their walls from Waco and street artists interested in Waco,” she said.
Waco securing the first Texas exhibition of “Haight Street Rat” shifted a perception by outsiders who associated Waco with the 1993 Branch Davidian siege and the 2015 Twin Peaks shooting or the Magnolia Market at the Silos phenomenon, Bond said.
“I think some thought, ‘Is this the Waco we thought we knew?’ ” Bond said. “Maybe the truth is neither of these things.”
More than 1,000 people visited Cultivate 7twelve on the first night of “Haight Street Rat’s” public appearance with lectures and related events well-attended and drawing interest from as far as Dallas and Houston.
For Cultivate 7twelve owner Rebekah Hagman, the response to the Banksy work demonstrates art’s power to move viewers, particularly art with a narrative.
“Over the last six weeks, it’s been an honor to see so many Wacoans walk through our doors for the first time,” she said. “I’m reminded of the enthusiasm that can surround an important piece of art.”