“David Cameron endorses criminal graffiti vandal?” A conversation with Ben Eine

0 Posted by - July 30, 2010 - Features, Policy, Public art

The first official visit by UK Prime Minister Cameron to the White House on July 20, 2010 was watched closely by political pundits around the world. They both wore blue ties during their meeting — did this signify unity on foreign affairs? Was their body language cold or comfortable? Did they walk in stride? During their visit the media analyzed every move, but it was the traditional gift exchange that took the world by storm.

President Obama presented the Prime Minister with a signed lithograph by the famed American pop artist Ed Rucha. In exchange, the Prime Minister presented Obama with a graffiti canvas painted by UK tagger-turned-street artist Eine. With this simple gift, Cameron had instantly challenged conventions and redefined the boundaries of contemporary art.

The media have since described Cameron’s gift as an ‘eyebrow-raising gift of hoodie art’ whilst others have referred to the exchange as a ‘refinement and sophistication of transatlantic relations’  and having ‘established new heights of greatness in meaningful diplomatic gift-giving.’  But more than anything, the exchange has reignited the classic debate: is it art?

The success of prolific street artists such as Banksy and Os Gemos have catapulted street art into the spotlight in recent years resulting in evening art auctions and exhibits in prestigious galleries including the Tate Modern.

For years, seen as only vandalism, the scene has now been set to re-evaluate graffiti’s merit as an art form. But while the art world has been able to reflect upon this difficult aesthetic question, government authorities have been slower to change.

In London, local councils still differ on the best way to tackle graffiti on their streets. Some works deemed by certain councils to be ‘art’ are protected or painstakingly repainted while the other ‘not-art’ graffiti is quickly buffed away and the ‘vandals’ prosecuted. And by no means has there been a uniform approach to addressing the crime vs. art debate.

In 2008, President Obama set a precedent by endorsing the iconic posters painted by street artist Shepard Fairey despite Fairey’s criminal past as a graffiti artist. The painting, Hope, has since been acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. and Fairey’s career has been forever altered. Some would argue the same can now be said for Eine, the humble, soft-spoken artist originally from Sidcup, UK.

Eine (real name Ben Flynn), began tagging trains and buildings in East London when he was only 14. Over the years while working at an insurance firm by day and painting graffiti by night, he has built up an impressive rap sheet of arrests for criminal damage. Eine, now 39 and a married father of three, works as an artist full-time.

Greatly respected in the street art community, Eine is known not only for his colourful letters written on store shutters, but also for being an expert printmaker and the artist responsible for the majority of Banksy’s screenprints produced at the gallery POW. However, two weeks ago Eine’s fame was still largely confined to the free murals painted on the back streets of Hackney. Today, his now infamous canvas Twenty First Century City hangs in the White House.

Eine is already being hailed as the next Banksy, but the accolades haven’t yet sunk in. Art Threat had a chance to catch up with Eine to discuss his work, the week that has forever changed his life — and what it all means for the future of street art.

Art Threat: You started out as a ‘proper’ graffiti artist with tags and trains and everything else.

EINE: Yeah.

So how did you make that transition? I know a lot of your peers who exhibit in galleries never did that and just started off as artists. They didn’t have to make a transition.

Beecause they were all designers in college. I think it just got to the point in my career where I’d been arrested so many times and I’d had fine upon fine, and community service after community service. And the last time I got caught I had a massive fine and the maximum amount of community service you could get. So I was pretty confident that the next time that I got caught the judge would have no other decision but to send me to prison, and I didn’t want to go to prison for graffiti. But I didn’t want to stop painting. I mean painting is something that I really, really enjoy.

So street art was beginning to happen, people like Banksy and Shepard Fairey were doing stuff. They weren’t popular, they were still completely underground but because I was in the graffiti world I was aware of them. And street art is much more kind of user friendly. A kind of happier, kind of nicer version of graffiti–well in some respects. And there is a lot less risk involved in doing street art than there is doing graffiti because with the kind of art you’re doing, people assume you have permission to do it, especially now a days. So the risk element is a lot less. So yeah, I started doing street art and stopped doing graffiti.

So do you still do tags?

Nah, I haven’t tagged anything in a long time (laughs).

The Telegraph wrote last week that you’re one of the lucky few who have made the “credibility-damaging transition” from the street to the galleries. That’s one of the big questions isn’t it, that the transition from the street to the galleries, or street to street art makes you somehow not a real artist.

Yeah. Well it’s down to the individual and what they’re comfortable with. I always considered myself to be a graffiti writer, and I’ve painted lots of graffiti. And now I consider myself to be a street artist. And as a street artist I strongly believe that you should have stuff painted in the street. People should be able to walk around — I paint a lot in east London — but wherever that artist lives or paints, people should be able to walk around the area and see stuff in the street by that artist.

The canvases, screen prints and the gallery shows that I do are a way to make money so I can continue to live as an artist. Obviously the stuff I paint in the street I never get paid to do, and most of the time I supply the paint and I supply the materials. So it costs me a lot of money to paint the stuff I put on the street and I have to survive. So my way of surviving is doing gallery shows and making screen prints and selling canvases.

On top of that I’m also an artist, and have an interest in art, and I have an interest in artistic techniques and different media. So I enjoy sitting in my studio and painting paintings and the paintings I produce present a different set of challenges than the stuff I paint on the street. So it’s another side to the things that I do.

So you prefer one over the other or are they just different?

I prefer painting in the street, but I enjoy painting canvases. I enjoy the challenge involved in painting stuff on canvas and trying to get a feeling for what I do on the street onto a canvas. But you know it’s difficult. What makes street art so exciting is that it appears overnight or over the weekend — out of the blue.

You’re walking to work, and it’s the same journey every day. And you turn the corner one day and there’s something new, there’s something that wasn’t there before. It might be a stencil of a rat holding a placard, or one of my shutters, or it could be a poster. And then it’s there for a couple of weeks or a year and then it gets painted over and it’s gone. And you know, you don’t have to go to a gallery, you don’t have to go to a museum to see it and it’s free for anyone to enjoy. I like that about street art.

So how do you feel about people trying to buy the walls that art gets painted on, or ripping a poster down and saving it or selling it?

You know, it happens. It’s part of the world that we live in. People watch me and if I put something on the street and because of different reasons it’s valuable, someone will nick it. If you leave the window open of your car, someone will stick their hand through and nick your stereo. It’s kind of the same thing. But you know the people who do it probably don’t even consider it stealing.

Yeah, it happens. But it’s the world we live in, you know?

I had a shutter. I think one of the first shutters I did on Kingsland Road, on an abandoned shop. It stayed there for a good couple of years and then someone bought the shop and fixed it up. And as they were doing the shop up they ripped down the old shutter with my painting on it and threw it in a skip. Then some enterprising young man dragged it out of the skip, put it on EBay and sold it for 1500 pounds. And lots of people asked me ‘how do you feel about it?’ And I was like ‘well, I don’t want to encourage the stealing and selling of my street stuff, but it was in a skip and it was going to get thrown away’. You know, someone’s earned 1500 pounds out of it. Good luck to ‘em!

So, who or what influences you and is there anyone that you’re dying to work with?

Uhh. I wouldn’t say…hmm… ESPO–Steve Powers. American. He does lots of word-based art and I think me and him could do an interesting show together. Mike Giant, also an American guy. I wouldn’t say he’s a massive influence on me, but he has an amazing skill and an amazing style and I enjoy seeing his stuff. But, I don’t know. It’s not something I’ve really thought so much about. Oh, but Keith Haring was a definitively a big influence on me growing up and seeing graffiti. And Andy Warhol has been a massive influence on me and every artist, but I can’t collaborate with them.

So what has it been like growing up in the heyday of UK street art and what has it been like being one of those prolific few who has shaped the scene?

It’s weird because I’ve always just done what I wanted to do, and I’ve never really considered myself to be someone who has helped the scene evolve or shaped the scene.

I’ve always had a really big passion for graffiti and street art, and part of the reason graffiti writers do what they do is because they want to get their name up in as many places as they possibly can. I still have that kind belief in street art. So I’ve always been one of the most prolific graffiti writers or street artists that kind of did that stuff — so I guess I must have done something. But it’s not really something that I’ve thought about.

Is there a hierarchy? You’re obviously on the inside of one of the top circles in London. With the New York scene in the 70s and 80s you’d mentor the younger guys. I’m just wondering if it works in the same way here.

Hmm. No, not really that I’m really aware of. I moved out of London a few years ago, but there’s a group of friends who I paint with every now and then. We’re all street artists but I don’t think we look at each other and think ‘oh he’s better than me’ because we’ve all be doing it for long enough to develop our own styles. We don’t really look at one person’s style and go ‘oh he’s better’. But sometimes someone comes up with an idea and you think ‘Arrrrg! I wish I thought of that!’

Who’s in that group?

There’s a guy called Pure Evil, and D*Face is in it, yeah just a few street artists. I’m sure there are others that I can’t think of.

I know the Poll Tax Riots influenced a number of you guys including Pure Evil and James Cauty. I was just wondering what your view of the event was and why it’s such a big deal in your community?

Yeah. It’s a big deal because, well, it was a massive deal at the time. And also the fact that there are so many really good, really powerful and really strong images of it out there, and we’re all old enough to have been alive when it happened and when it kicked off. We remember it and remember how angry and how passionate people were. And now there’s no poll tax, so in a way the people won, to a degree. So, it was a massive deal and it is very well documented. A lot of what we do is taking old images or other peoples’ images and re-appropriating them or using them in what we do.

Have there been any other events that have influenced you? I mean your work hasn’t previously been that political, but in recent years it has been. Like your Cork Street Series?

Yeah, the Cork Street stuff was a bit more political and the stuff I did in the L.A. show turned into something more political. The original idea behind it [the L.A. show] was that I wanted to do a set of paintings that were about old London and how London had grown and had turned into the city that it is. And just researching that, there were lots of old images that I found that were all based around protests and demonstrations and whilst looking through those images what I found really interesting were people who were going out and who did something and who stood for something and put themselves on the line.

The people that were photographed waving the banners or wrestling with the police were the people who actually made a difference, but you don’t actually know who any of these people were. They were just normal members of society who had a really massive passion about what they believed in and they got up and they did something about it. Like the Women of Greenham Common, and the Anti-NF and BNP riots in Lewisham and South London.

So basically the people in the photographs that I was looking at, you had no idea who they were. A lot of the photographs were from old press cuttings and books from that year, news events of 1985 or whatever. But there were no names of people. I love the fact that it was all about these random people who had a really powerful, passionate drive, and who got up and did something. And that was what my series of pictures for the LA show turned into. And because they’re all protests and riots, and then I combined that imagery with powerful words behind the black and white press shots, they kind of turned into political paintings. But they weren’t so much political as more of a celebration of the unnamed person. (Laughing) Sorry, it’s hard for an artist to explain their work.

That’s alright. So, do you consider yourself a political artist then?

No, no. I don’t really consider myself a political artist. I think the art that I make I’d like it to be a celebration. It is trying to be positive rather than negative; it’s trying to put a smile on peoples’ faces. The stuff I paint on the street, it’s there to make improvements, to make the area look better. Obviously what’s gone on in the last week or so has made me look at what I’m doing and question what I’m doing.

In a strange way, I think I spent so many years being destructive and not caring about what I painted and not caring about what I did. And now I’ve grown up and mellowed and matured and in some way, I’m kind of trying to make amends for that; trying to make things look better and more enjoyable and more fun.

I painted the entire alphabet on down the street — Middlesex Street — which is just up by Liverpool St. Station in London, and I got an email from a guy that lives there that said: ‘Ben, I’m just writing to you to say thank you so much. I’ve lived on Middlesex Street for three years and it’s never looked so vibrant and so happy and so much fun; the whole time I’ve lived here. You’ve turned a really boring, grey street to something fun and exciting. So, thank you very much’.

Wow, that must have been amazing.

Yeah, it’s a really nice thing for someone to write, and it’s not what I consciously set out to do. But that is I guess what’s happening when I get to paint a lot in a small area–almost like I’m doing home improvements on a large scale. (Laughs.)

So I could ask you a thousand more questions, but let’s talk about what everyone wants to talk about. Can you tell me how the last week has been for you?

It’s been a very surreal roller coaster of media madness.

I got a phone call last Friday from Anya Hindmarch telling me that ‘Samantha Cameron was a fan, and that David Cameron was looking for a piece of art to give to the most powerful man in the world — think America!’ She didn’t mention his name. And I was like ‘Wow, yeah. I think I’d be interested in this.’ And she said ‘is it alright if I pass your number to Downing Street and get someone to give you a call?’ I was like ‘Yeah! Totally fine!’

So about twenty minutes later I got a call from Downing Street and they explained to me what was going to happen. Again, they didn’t mention the name Obama but they made it quite obvious that it was going to be him. This was Friday, so we spent the weekend emailing them over images of paintings that I had available. They needed to take the painting out with them to Washington on Monday so I had like two days. There wasn’t actually time to paint something new, so they had to take something that I already had.

So I emailed them images of some pictures but they hummed and hawed, but then on Sunday afternoon I remembered that I had a painting in a gallery in Brighton called Twenty First Century City. I emailed them a picture of that over, and within five minutes they came back and said ‘we all really love it, can we have that one?’ And I said ‘Yeah, cool!’

What’s the meaning behind that one?

I did a few paintings that were about places; longer phrases than I normally write. I normally write short phrases or individual words, but these were bigger paintings. I can’t remember exactly why, but at the time I was thinking about cities and places. And I think I’d recently watched Blade Runner or a film like that and I was playing around with the word ‘metropolis’ and thinking of the science fiction and futuristic imagery that that word conjured up for me. But it wasn’t long enough to go with the other pieces I was doing and it wasn’t long enough to go on the canvas I was painting. I wanted all the canvases to be quite similar in the layout of letters in the words. So I was just trying to find a longer phrase that conjured up the same kind of imagery as ‘metropolis’ and I came up with ‘twenty first century city’. And yeah, so I painted it and it went off to a show in New York and no one bought it, and it came back to England and went up in a gallery in London and no one bought it, and it went up in the White House eventually! (Laughs.)

And look who’s laughing now!

Yeah, and now everyone wants to buy it!

So how do you feel about the fact that it’s actually hanging somewhere in the White House?

Yeah, it actually is hanging up there. I got a message from someone at Downing Street saying ‘just to let you know the painting is on the wall in the White House.’

That’s incredible, that must be such a strange feeling.

Yeah, it is. The whole thing has been totally surreal. As an artist I want people to enjoy my art, I want it to hang up on somebody’s wall and it to be looked at and enjoyed. And to have one of my paintings hanging up in the White House is a pretty mad thing. There can’t be that many living artists that have got a painting hanging up in there. So in that respect it’s better than having a painting in the Tate, you know?

Definitely. You know, the headline in the The Evening Standard today was “Is Ben Eine the Next Banksy?”

(Laughs. A lot.)

How you feel about that?

It’s weird because there’s massive amounts of interest in me at the moment. But is it like a five minute flash in the pan, or are people going to take me seriously? Will it last?

I’m hoping that this will be a good thing for my career in the long term. I’m not interested in doubling the prices of all the work I’ve got available and cashing in on this and making a quick buck. I’m going to try to make this a positive thing for me in the long term. I’d like to be making paintings in 20 years time and I’d like this to be a thing that helps me for the rest of my career rather than just milk it for the next six months.

Going back to that headline, are you and Banksy still mates? Are you still doing his screen prints?

I haven’t seen him in a while. We’ve both busy doing our own stuff. And I used to do all — well, a lot of the screen prints for the company Pictures on Walls that produced Jamie Hewlett stuff, Banksy stuff, Paul Insect stuff. But it got to a point in my career, well my art career, where I just didn’t have time to do that. I needed to concentrate on my stuff and spend less time doing other people’s stuff. I haven’t done any screen prints of other people’s stuff for quite a while.

Are you two going to have a laugh about this?

I haven’t spoken to Bansky since this kicked off, but I imagine he’s laughing somewhere. He’s one of the few people I know who will have any idea about the media commotion surrounding me at the moment… So yeah, he’ll be laughing somewhere.

Do you think this experience will influence the work you produce?

Yeah, I think maybe it could. Obviously off the back of this, a lot more people have now heard of me. A lot of people who are into art but not necessarily into street art have heard of me. Potentially more collectors and buyers and definitely galleries who don’t necessarily work with street artists but work with contemporary artists have now heard of me and are maybe considering working with me in the future.

So yeah, there’s a lot of people that are looking at my work so I think I’m going to have to be aware of that and think about it a little more seriously. I think in the past I’ve thought that my work was going to street art fans and it was being geared up towards people who enjoy and like street art and it has reflected my work on the street. And I think that now that there’s a wider audience, I think maybe my work will grow, not necessarily mature, but it will reflect the wider audiences that can see it.

Do you think this experience will change the way street art is perceived more generally in the UK? Do you think it might influence the government, or affect legislation, or the criminality that is associated with street art?

I doubt it will affect the law. I think the law is probably quite right. If you commit a crime and it’s criminal damage you should get punished for it. If there’s graffiti in places that it shouldn’t be, it should probably be cleaned off.

But I think it’s going to make it more mainstream — not that it wasn’t mainstream anyway. I’m now more mainstream, more acceptable, less shocking, and maybe now I’ll get a phone call from Hackney Council or Tower Hamlets Council asking me to come and improve their borough or something.

Yeah, well it’s funny; when I forwarded my friend the first article I read about this happening he said ‘wow, graffiti’s not cool anymore’.

(Laughs.)

Yeah, he said ‘it (street art) was pretty cool until Cameron thought it was cool’.

(Still laughing.) Yeah, well I mean the painting wasn’t done for Cameron. If the painting was going to wind up in Cameron’s house then I don’t think they would have approached me directly. They probably would have bought the painting from a gallery. I think because the painting was going to Obama, that’s why they approached me. And I definitely said ‘yes’ because it was going to wind up with Obama. I think Obama is quite understanding, and probably has a bit of an understanding about street art, and I think he probably liked it a bit. So the fact that it was going to wind up there, and I was pretty sure that he was actually going to look at it, open it and enjoy it was one of the reasons why I said ‘yes’. So it’s Obama that’s cool, not Cameron.

But, you know from the Prime Minister’s point of view, it’s a pretty brave thing to do. It could have really turned round and kicked him in the ass, this story. You know, ‘David Cameron endorsing criminal graffiti vandal?’ (Laughs.)

(Laughing.) Well there’s been some of that too.

Yeah, but you know, there could have been a lot of that.

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