Mariko Finch: Hi, Ben. You’re up a cherry picker in Ibiza. Can you say anything about the commission you’re currently working on?
Ben Eine: It’s the second time I’ve painted something in this neon font freehand, and it says “Make Your Voice Heard”. They wanted something positive. Once I’ve finished up here, I’m going to jump in a cab to the old town and work on a piece there. I think that one is going to say “Dead Inside”. Polar opposites. That's the conflict of Ibiza.
When your fascination with typography and letters begin?
It began at the age of 14 when I discovered a book called Subway Art by two people who have since become my friends, Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant. It’s all about New York graffiti on the side of trains, and when I discovered the book it completely blew my mind. It was the first thing I ever stole, because I didn’t have any money. I was probably doing a paper round or something at the time and the book was about £14, so I definitely couldn’t afford to buy it.
It became my bible and completely changed the course of my life. For me, graffiti was always about exploring the letter form; twisting, morphing and shaping the words in to something that was legible perhaps only for people doing the same things: if you weren’t a graffiti writer there was no way you could ever read it. It was like hieroglyphics.
And how did this evolve over time?
After doing it for 20-odd years and nearly getting sent to prison for graffiti, I kind of lost interest in it. This was around the time that I met Banksy, and it was the beginnings of street art. Street art seemed a little bit more interesting than graffiti. And because of my interest in words and letters — which nobody else was really doing at the time — I decided to study old typography and do my version of it, in spray paint.
Do you think that people often mistake graffiti and street art for the same thing? What’s the distinction if you were to describe it to somebody?
Graffiti is one of the most negative, destructive, selfish things that young men do, whereas street art is the exact opposite. It's unbelievably giving, life-enhancing and celebratory, and graffiti isn’t. Graffiti is a rucksack full of spray paints, astro fat cats, and fucking things up. Graffiti is just repetitively writing your name over and over again everywhere you walk. Graffiti is just tagging, whereas street art is about making a neighbourhood look better.
So it’s a more thoughtful process?
Well, the thought that goes in to graffiti is essentially about driving your ego, and wanting to be before the next person. Street art is more considered; you analyse the place where you’re going to paint, you work something out to fit that location, and you do it to engage the people that are going to see it. You want to make what you’re painting better than what it was before.
You recently made a work about the Grenfell Tower tragedy using the words of a Ben Okri poem. Would you say that you are a political artist?
The older I get the more I feel I have responsibility as an artist to make people more aware, and I’d like to use my position to make the world a better place. I know how mad that sounds, but as an artist you have the opportunity to do that. I wouldn't say that I’m a political artist but I have views, and those views are expressed in what I paint. I’m a Londoner — I love London and I like to celebrate London, and I will fight for the underdog and do what I can to support people, so charity work is really important.
You talked about the book having a real impact on you, but that was a few years back now. Where do you draw your influence from today? Looking through your work, the references are broad.
My biggest influence comes from travelling, meeting people and experiencing different cultures. Also, I adore the handmade element of things. I’m in awe of sign writers, people who can paint the most beautiful signs in one stroke of a paintbrush. These people have dedicated their lives to it. They do it for the love, the history, the craft, and because it’s handmade. And within the handmade you get mistakes. The sign-writer Stephen Powers said “perfection comes as standard, but mistakes cost extra” — I love that.
That is why I hand draw and cut my stencils, every time I paint the letter 'A' it is going to be different. It would be more efficient to have the stencils laser cut, but then the only opportunity to make them different is in the application of the paint. I want an element of chance.
Can you briefly talk about the difference between your works on canvas compared to your large-scale murals and paintings? What’s it like working on such different scales?
The difference is, the stuff that I paint on the street is going to be painted over in five years’ time. So in 50 years when I’m dead and buried, maybe the only painting that will exist on the street will be Scary in Shoreditch, because I think they’re going to keep that forever. The stuff I paint at my studio, the stuff I put on canvas, the stuff I sell and actually sign my name to that hangs in people’s houses and galleries and museums, will still be knocking around 200 years after I’m dead. So that’s the difference — it’s ephemeral.
Traditionally, people protect, covet and preserve artworks as a precious objects. For an artist to accept that a piece once day won't exist is quite interesting...
I’ve literally painted hundreds of thousands of things and they’ve all been painted over or cleaned off.
And you’re okay with that?
Totally okay. This piece I’m doing right now… I’ve been up a cherry picker for three days in Ibiza, and in five years’ time it’s not going to be here, or it’ll be so faded that no one will look at it. Street art is like a little injection of happiness, and then it’s gone.
"perfection comes as standard, but mistakes cost extra"
How do you choose what to say in your art?
I collect words and phrases. I’ve always got a notebook with me that’s filled up with random quotes. I love words and placing them out of the context so they take on new meaning. They could be song lyrics — like the Great Adventure piece I did for a Louis Vuitton commission. I put it on canvas and they turned it in to a scarf, and the Praise Great picture comes from a Biggy Smalls song.
But also, I can turn up in front of a wall, measure the height and width, then calculate the space and the rows of letters I can make, then I start going through my letters, and say: “right, I’ve got 20 letters I can fit on this wall so what have I got that’s 20 letters?” I’m dictated to by the size and the shape of the wall that I’m painting.
We are selling your painting London Calling in the Made in Britain auction. It feels like a slightly humorous reference to pop culture; speaking to the vibrancy and the wit of London as a city. How did it come about?
I married an American woman and I wound up living in California. One day I was listening to The Clash in San Francisco where it’s beautiful weather all of the time, and I was like it just doesn’t sound as good. The Clash sounds good walking down Southwark High Street in the rain. That is when The Clash sounds like what The Clash are supposed to sound like. It doesn’t sound the same in shorts and a t-shirt walking down Venice beach…
What is the street art community like? Do you all support each other, do you collaborate, are you always checking what each other’s doing or is it quite a solitary existence?
There are friendships and there are rivalries, and then there’s lots of helping each other out and supporting each other. It’s a good community.
Anyone we should keep an eye on?
How and Nosm. They are two identical twins from Germany who now live in New York, and we were in the same graffiti crew. I’ve known them for 100 years, and they do the most amazing stuff. Apart from those two there’s a guy called Banksy, he does some good stuff sometimes.