It's 8:30 a.m., and French street artist Xavier Prou — a.k.a. "Blek le Rat" — is surveying his latest stencil work: Curtain-sized canvasses populated by anarchists, cops, dancers, Napoleon, and the Mona Lisa, all in tableau at 941 Geary. Le Rat is happy to discuss them, but he pauses when the subject turns to British street artist Banksy. The two have never met, but they are forever linked — the progenitor (le Rat) and the inheritor (Banksy), whose brand-name works sell in the neighborhood of $1 million.
"He copied," says le Rat, standing in the middle of his "60/30" exhibit. "I'm not really happy — it took me a long time to find my own style — and then someone took my style, and he's more famous than me."
Without le Rat there would be no Banksy, who essentially appropriated le Rat's stencil style. Still, Banksy's celebrity has brought attention — and money — to other street artists, including le Rat.
"He knows how to manipulate the media, how to manipulate the art market. I don't," says le Rat. "But he put the graffiti movement at a level that I didn't put it. So, thank you, Banksy, for that. He took advantage of me, and I took advantage of him."
What Banksy got from le Rat is a throwback style — an emphasis on black-and-white or sepia-toned images that stand out on walls in the urban landscape. Three decades ago, when le Rat was first prowling the streets of Paris, scrawls, tags, and freakishly exaggerated drawings were the norm in street art. Le Rat helped introduce a visual language that was both quirky and...