Well f**k us sideways with a crate of spray paint but the unthinkable has happened. David Cameron, British Prime Minister and Tory – yes TORY leader shook hands with President Obama on his first official visit to Washington and proudly handed over a painting by street artist Ben Eine. Either we’ve all disappeared down one seriously hallucinogenic rabbit hole, or the political dynamics of street art just took a left turn doing 90 with the handbrake lashed firmly on. It opens up all sorts of questions about changing social perceptions of the medium as well as sowing doubts about the inevitably coruscating commercialism that may eventually be its demise, but for Ben who’s been pumping out stunning art for over 2 decades it is richly deserved and a fat slice of wicked news after a lifetime spent underground and grafting. As he said himself in 10 foot letters – It’s been a strange week , and we caught up with him as it all went mental in the Cameron Obama aftermath.
Could you tell us a little about your background as a graffiti artist
I started doing graffiti when I was about 13 or 14. When what’s now grown into hip hop came over from America as electro music and break dancing 25 odd years ago, graffiti was a part of that new movement. I was a young kid at that time and I wanted to be a part of it and being a bit of a cheeky git that likes running away from things and being a bit naughty but since I was rubbish at breakdancing, graffiti ticked the boxes for me and so I got heavily into it.
You eventually moved away from graffiti into what’s much more your current style. What sparked that evolution?
I was getting really bored of how graffiti hadn’t progressed and hadn’t developed into the amazing promise I felt it had when we started out. We were going to change the world, we were going to paint everything and it was going to be revolutionary. Graffiti over the years didn’t progress and just became really boring and stagnated and graffiti writers have these self imposed rules like you can’t use stencils and everything has got to be done freehand you know it has to be like this or like that…. And people outside of the graffiti community were doing other things like stencils and abstract painting and while the graffiti community hated that, I actually liked it and found it really interesting. The combination of being bored with graffiti and seeing what was happening elsewhere as the street art scene was starting to happen with people like Banksy and Shepard Fairey making posters and stickers pushed me to have a closer look at the potential of this new scene. Add to that the fact that I’d been arrested lots of times and was on the verge of prison, while didn’t want to go to prison for graffiti, I definitely didn’t want to stop painting stuff. So I kind of knocked graffiti on the head and started doing street art.
At that point were you just using a can but you then got into screen printing and all kinds of different media. All self taught?
Yeah I haven’t been to college and I didn’t study art at school from the age of 13 so yeah – all self taught.
When I did graffiti, for me it was about the letter form and how letters change shape when combining them with different letters and graffiti is ultimately about making your name look as cool, as fresh, and as stylish as you possibly can when you write it on a wall or tag up the side of a train. It’s making your name look fucking amazing and all about the style with which you put it out there. I was never into characters or backgrounds and scenes – it was all about the word. So when I stopped graffiti and moved into street art, I started with letters almost without thinking about it, and would play about with my name and the letter form in general. Lots of people that were doing street art had an image or a character that went with their name – Banksy had his rats and Shepard Fairey had his big Obey character, but I wanted to try to do something different and because of my history in graffiti and my kind of nerdish interest in typography and especially in old fonts, it just progressed into what it is now.
Your canvases feature children heavily – can you elaborate on that a bit
It’s a lot to do with innocence, video cameras, the way that children are overly protected and the way that surveillance is swamping our society. And taking that fact of the overprotection of our children, does it affect them, does it damage them, are we taking away their freedom by trying to protect our freedom with endless layers of security? Those canvases are really playing about with those kind of ideas
What was the first inkling that Downing Street was going to be approaching you for some work?
I was in my studio on a Friday night cutting out some stencils and I got a phone call from Anya Hindmarch who I had collaborated with towards the end of last year. We had a little chat then she said this is a bit of a weird one, but Samantha Cameron and David are really big fans of your work. I was like whoa that’s a bit of a surprise. She went on – ‘David is looking for a painting to give to the most important man in the world; in America, I can’t say his name. Would you be interested?’ I said wow yeah. So she was like do you mind if I give your number to Downing Street and someone will give you a call. About twenty minutes later someone from Downing Street called and basically said the same thing that Anya had said – that David and Samantha Cameron are fans and that they were looking for a painting to give to – and again wouldn’t say the name – but the most important man in the world- would I be interested. The only thing was that they needed it by Monday and so we had a talk about the work that I do and what wouldn’t be suitable because a lot of the stuff that I do does contain negative words and they were really only interested in the positive stuff. They did worry about what could be read into the words and they obviously thought a lot about it, so I emailed them some images and the back and forth went on all day Saturday and Sunday morning until I remembered that I had a painting called “21st Century City” in a Brighton gallery. So I emailed them an image of that and within 5 minutes, they came back saying – yeah it’s perfect, we love it, they picked it up on Monday and it went on an airplane to Washington.
There’s a couple of mad statements in there and the first one that jumps out is that David and Samantha Cameron are big fans of yours. Do you think they were fully aware of the ramifications of what they were signing up to and the whole legacy of street art with its implications of vandalism and arrests in the past. Do you think they were aware of that and accepting or do you think they just saw something in a gallery?
Well going back to whether or not they were fans, Samantha obviously saw the work that I did for Anya Hindmarch who is their mate so she was aware of the work that I did with the bags and I also did paintings in the windows of one of her shops on Sloane which she had probably seen. About a month before this all happened I had a double page spread in the Observer with photographs of all these shutters that I had recently painted on Middlesex street with the entire alphabet. They may well have seen that too, but I can’t imagine they had seen my stuff in the flesh and I can’t imagine that they hang out in east London all that much and you know, most of my stuff is in east London. They had obviously looked at my website and seen some of that and you know perhaps they were fans. That’s the weird thing about what I do, I sit in my little studio in the middle of nowhere and it goes to a gallery and sometimes somebody buys it and you never know who they are or where it goes so they could very well have some of my paintings hanging up in their house.
It’s much less surprising that they were fans than it made it through the minefield of diplomatic red tape. This kind of thing goes through Foreign Office clearance and endless navel gazing in case any offense could be caused on any level so that it usually ends up as a very bland gift..
Do you think they were open minded enough to just accept the political statement of handing over work by an artist who equally does street work, illegal work and stuff that isn’t necessarily conformist?
I think that they were obviously open minded enough because, I’d be really surprised if they hadn’t read the Observer interview and in that I state that I had been arrested and that I’ve got convictions for graffiti. I would be shocked if they hadn’t done a background check on me to find out if I had been arrested and for what because any association like that could massively backfire so they must have been comfortable enough with what they found out and on top of that Obama is not Bush. They wouldn’t have done this if Bush was in power. Obama works with Shepard Fairey who designed the famous Obama Hope poster and so maybe they think that Obama is a big street art collector so let’s introduce him to this English guy.
This represents some major progress, and not just in the acceptance of street art but in the open mindedness of the Conservative government. Were you, stepping outside yourself as an artist, amazed at this symbol of increasing liberalism.
It’s amazing because you would never imagine a Tory government to remotely care about street art let alone to feel comfortable enough to give it as a gift to the President of the United States. It was their first meeting with each other as leaders, and the first meeting for Cameron as prime minister. So it was a very brave thing for them to do and I’m shocked because I’m not a safe artist, I’m really, really surprised that A they chose this type of art and B that they chose me.
Well I’m less worried about money, I’ve got more of a spring in my step, it’s massively raised my profile and to have a painting in the White House is an important step for any artist. It’s made it all a little bit more serious. I’ve now got to consider my steps and my plans going forward more than I would have done previously. My sales have increased – I’m a working artist and this is how I make money and I do sell paintings and I do sell screen prints but there has been a dramatic rise in the amount of stuff I’ve sold in the last week that in turn has taken away some of the pressure on me to go out and earn money. I’ve got a mortgage, a wife and three kids and this is how I earn my money. I have to go out and earn X amount of money every month so that we can eat, the kids can go to school and I can paint so it’s freed me up and allowed me to be a lot more choosy about the work that I do and a lot more career minded about those choices which is an amazing position for an artist to be in. From time to time I have to collaborate with certain brands and do certain work for the money. Not for the exposure and not for the fact that it’s going to raise my profile – in fact quite often these collaborations damage you as an artist and damage your profile but I’ve got commitments and I have to earn money so from time to time I do things that I definitely wouldn’t do if I didn’t have a family and a mortgage. So because I’m now selling more paintings I can be a lot choosier about what I do to earn a crust and I can concentrate on what I would genuinely like to do as an artist.
Do you think with this new raised profile apart from being freer to make commercial commitments that you are happier with that this is going to allow you to do much more interesting street stuff in the future with cooperation from landlords like the Middlesex Street project?
I really, really hope so because I consider myself a street artist and as a street artist I think you have to have a presence of work on the street and to a greater or lesser degree I feel that some of that should be illegal because that is what the essence of it is about for me.
Generally do you think that in London, attitudes to public space are starting to develop and people are a bit more alive to their surroundings and instead of walking past something with their head down and conscious of what’s corporate and what’s theirs
Some people are and a lot of people aren’t. I think that what is happening on the streets now with regard to street art and street artists is very different to what was happening when it was graffiti. Street art is a much, much more user friendly version of graffiti and the general public can enjoy and appreciate street art and I feel that some of it makes a positive impact on an area. Some of the stuff that I do, when I’m finished if you look at a before and after photo, you know if you showed that to 500 residents that live in that area and asked them is it better now or was it better before, I strongly believe that 90% of them will say that it’s better now. I’m making positive improvement to areas and especially on the scale that I work, painting large spaces and a lot of them. Its weird I spent years vandalising things and being a general pain in the arse and I spent the last 5 or7 years kind of turning that around and improving stuff. When I started painting the first shutters I’d approach the shop owners and ask them for permission but a lot has changed since we got the Olympics and Hackney council have now got a budget to remove graffiti whereas before that you’d tag a shop shutter and it would stay there for years. So I was going around Hackney road asking these shop owners for permission to paint their shutters and quite often I would be painting over something I’d done from years before. Can’t help but crack a smile!
You are in a perfect position to answer this. You’ve just had a massive increase in profile and you can use the fact that street art is fashionable to get your dues after god knows how many years grafting but do you think that as a wider movement, this increased kind of commercial acceptance and media interest of street art is ultimately going to help it or destroy it.
It massively depends on where it goes. If street art remains on the street and an element of it remains illegal, if it remains exciting and fresh and continues to grow then it has an exciting and positive future but if it comes off the streets and goes into galleries and into museums then it will become boring, dull and lifeless. The thing about street art is to be walking down the road on your way to work and you turn a corner and there’s something on the wall that wasn’t there yesterday. It can be anything and it puts a smile on your face and then 2 weeks later someone’s cleaned it off or someone has nicked it and is trying to sell it. That’s what I love about street art – the fact that it appears and disappears and you don’t have to go to a gallery or museum to see it. I think if it stays like that then yeah it has a good future but if it comes off the street and it just winds up in galleries, then it’s going to lose its power …. Street art is more for the people and less for the elite.
I’ve got a few orders to fulfill but a couple of weeks before this happened I had agreed to do a show in a gallery in San Francisco in March so I’m going to work on a big body of exciting work and then also try to get the gallery in San Francisco to find me some good and exciting places to paint while I’m in there. So whenever I do a show anywhere in the world I always try to do some street work and hopefully on the back of this more doors will open for me to paint more street stuff, and that for me is incredibly important.