Tuesday, 31 August 2010

LSD Magazine Interviews - Eine (Issue 5)

Well fuck 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. What was it about letters specifically that drew you. 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.


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