Often described as ‘the father of stencil art’, French stencil artist Blek Le Rat has been creating art on the streets since the early 80’s. He is best known for spray-painting black rats along the sides of Paris’ walls. His subject of choice represents his canvas he paints them on – the urban environment.

It was in 1991, after Blek Le Rat was arrested for damage to public property, that he began using stencilled posters. This allowed him to work quicker and avoid any more run-ins with the authorities. He gained increasing global popularity by confronting social and political world issues in his art, such as the 2004 Iraq war. His work is world-famous, including Rat Nº5, which depicts Blek le Rat’s iconic rat holding two baguettes, symbolising his home country. The artist has also influenced other famous stencil artists such as Logan Hicks and British street artist Banksy, who later confirmed this in his book, ‘Wall and Piece’.


The Chinese artist is known for his controversial views on the Chinese government. Ai Wei Wei’s run-ins with the government derived from an early age. His poet father Ai Qing, was denounced during the Anti-Rightist Campaign and in 1958, his family was sent to a labour camp when Ai Wei Wei was only a year old.

He had moved to the United States in the 80’s but returned to China in 1993 when his father fell ill. However, it wasn’t until 2005 when he began making noise about the authoritarian regime, when he was asked to write a blog for the Chinese Web portal, Sina. Here, he was able to share his views on the Chinese government, which didn’t go down too well in his country, but raised awareness in other countries of the struggle of human rights in China. After the blog was shut down, Ai Wei Wei was placed under surveillance and continued to criticize the government through the means of social media.

Ai Wei Wei was placed under house arrest in November, 2010 to prevent him from attending a party to mark the demolition of his Shanghai studio complex. Ai was later informed that his studio complex was scheduled to be razed. According to Shanghai authorities, the studio was illegally built; however, Ai believed that the decision to demolish the building was purely political.

In April 2011, Ai Wei Wei wasn’t arrested for crimes against the Chinese government but for tax evasion. He was released on bail after two months and he was levied with a 15 million yuan tax bill. You can find out more about Ai Wei Wei’s achievements in the documentaries Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012) and Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case (2013).


Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara rose to fame in the art world during Japan’s pop art movement in the 1990s. His medium is sculptures and paintings and his subject matter is seemingly innocent children or animals who appear to be brandishing a weapon. 

One evening in New York in 2009, Nara went for a few drinks in an East Village bar called Niagara, after he had finished installing a gallery show. As the night moved into the early hours of the morning, Nara began drawing some of his recognised figures on the walls of the bar. Before leaving the bar, he signed and dated his work. As he waited for his train to go home, he drew more depictions on the walls of the subway where he was caught and arrested by police. He spent the night in jail for defacing public property and was released in time for the opening of his show.

In an article by Art Net News, Nara’s artwork was promptly removed from the subway walls, but at Niagara, the owner covered the drawings with a protective plastic screen. Now, a decade after the creation, the drawings on the wall are worth a pretty penny: “An art adviser who is very involved in Nara’s secondary market said that the works, when taken together, could be worth as much as $5 million.”


Image of Keith Haring painting

Graffiti artist Keith Haring made a name for himself from spontaneously drawing chalk outlines on blank, black advertising spaces in New York’s subway back in the late 1970s. During those earlier years, Haring would spend hours a day traveling the subway. Each station the train would stop at, Haring would search for his desired canvas. He would work quickly and efficiently and would produce numerous pieces of artwork each day. Drawing in the subways was very important to Haring because, “he knew that 80/90 per cent of these people never went to a museum, so he wanted to bring the museum to them.”

Haring wasn’t secretive about his actions, he would regularly create his artwork in front of a busy crowd of commuters. This led to countless arrests for defacing public property. Check out this short video of Haring being interviewed (and arrested) about his work: 

As his work grew in popularity and “become a widely recognized visual language”, Haring was later commissioned for large scale projects such as murals. His unique, stylized imagery of dogs, expressive figures and other depictions later addressed the political and social issues, particularly homosexuality and AIDS, which he later passed away from in 1990.  


In more recent news, Tania Bruguera was arrested by Cuban authorities outside her home. She was one of at least 40 artists who were taken into custody while they were en route to a  peaceful protest against police violence in Havana. She was detained in jail for 10 hours. On 30th June 2020, some information and a screenshot of a phone message conversation were shared on the artist’s Facebook page. The comments explained that the artist was kidnapped by authorities who were dressed as civilians. 

But this wasn’t Bruguera’s first rodeo. The artist has been detained several times in the past for speaking out against Cuba’s authoritarian regime. Including being arrested and released three times between December 2014 and January 2015 for organizing a public performance. Her art commonly confronts repressive governments like the one in Cuba and gives a voice to the voiceless.

If you are interested in purchasing art from Blek Le Rat, visit the UP & COMING ART online gallery.

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