For someone who now has one of his pictures hanging on a wall in the White House, thanks to a much publicised Cameron/Obama gift exchange, Ben Eine appears remarkably unphased by being catapulted into the limelight '“ even though the mass media frenzy to get a piece of him has been 'mental'. I am, in fact, the first of six interviewers he has booked in for today. Real name Ben Flynn, Ben Eine is a street artist who has now crossed the line from a graffiti 'criminal' to 'mainstream' enfant not-so-terrible. He's been chased, arrested and fined more times than he can remember, and was given 200 hours of community service which took him about a year to complete. So what eventually inspired him to change his ways?
The answer is simple: the thought of going to prison. One youthful night, Eine and two of his cohorts were decorating a train. At 2am, not a soul was about...until a police car screeched around the corner. The police gave chase across a field and Eine, somewhat fitter than the other two, managed to leap a fence and escape being arrested. The other two weren't so lucky and promptly ended up in prison. For Eine, that was his turning point, his final wake-up call.
Interestingly, Eine is turned off by quite a lot of graffiti these days, describing it as 'self-defeating and narrow-minded', which is carried out by people referred to in the graffiti world as 'toys'. Toy is graffiti slang for an unskilled artist who has no idea what they're doing and just defaces and 'tags' without any skill. He also dislikes the move away from the use of stencils, which he uses all the time '“ as do other highly notable street artists like Banksy, who is referred to as a 'King', incidentally '“ the opposite of a toy '“ for obvious reasons. And of course, there's King Robbo too.
Knowing that Eine has a long association and is great friends with Banksy, I asked if the rumours were true that Banksy had defaced the 'King Robbo' tags by adding 'Fuc' in front of them. No, Eine says, probably not. Given that Banksy's identity is pretty much a state secret (or underworld secret) it's rather surprising how they met. Eine had been a street artist in London for about 25 years and Banksy had moved up to London from Brighton without really knowing anyone. Eine was celebrating his birthday at the graffiti-friendly Dragon Bar in Shoreditch. He had already heard of Eine, so introduced himself as Banksy '“ although he may not have done so had Eine's girlfriend been within earshot! Even more coincidentally, he met Robbo on the same day. Small world.
You may have heard more about Banksy but you may well be more familiar with Eine's work than you realise. Take a walk around Spitalfields when the shops are closed, for instance, and you'll see his colourful alphabet adorning 26 individual shop's shutters. And yes, all above board; Eine and the gallery Electric Blue persuaded all the shop owners to agree to the project. One of the biggest kicks for him is to see the local children enjoying calling out the alphabet to their parents. It's not just Spitalfields, though. As a commercial street artist, Eine's work has taken him as far afield as Paris, New York, LA and Tokyo.
So now that he's a mainstream artist, is there ever a flicker of temptation to whip out some stencils and some paint and set to work on decorating a building spontaneously? Yes, that never goes away. The pay-off in graffiti is seeing people's live reactions to it. So in days past, he would paint a train in bold, vibrant colours and then ride that train the next morning, watching the reactions of people as they got on. But now, of course, he no longer does this and won't go back to that life. With a wife and three children, those days are firmly in his past.
I'm interested to know Eine's opinion of giving freebies. Unrecognised artists (and that includes musicians, designers and virtually anybody in the creative industries) frequently have to work for free just for an opportunity to get their foot in the door. Graffiti, by its nature, is free by choice, but what does Eine think of it as a commercial requirement? His response is that that's just the way it is '“ always has been, always will be. In his experience, a freebie rarely leads to anything either. He has done work for incredibly wealthy companies who claim to have no budget, but they all promise exposure and the promise of future work 'if anything comes up.' But it never did. That seems to be pretty standard across the board, from my own experience too.
But would Eine do a freebie again? Admittedly, he doesn't need to any more, particularly in light of his recent White House success, but if he felt that his work would reach a whole new audience, he might consider it. If it was a fashion company whose work he really liked, for instance, that might be worth doing.
So how did Eine feel when Downing Street asked him to give the painting for free to David Cameron to present to President Obama? There was a slight flinch initially '“ thinking that it was a bit cheeky (it's not as if they can't afford the £2,500, is it?) '“ but with hindsight that pales into insignificance when he considers how much his profile has now rocketed as a result. But how did Downing Street choose him anyway? Samantha Cameron is friends with handbag designer Anya Hindmarch who collaborated with Eine to design a range of trendy handbags, and she has been a fan of his ever since. How useful to have the Prime Minister's wife as an advocate for one's work!
How was Twenty First Century City chosen? It was all a bit of a rush, really. He received the call on a Friday night, saying the picture was needed for Monday, so he didn't have time to create anything to order, of course. After a lot of photographing of pictures in his studio, he suddenly thought of Twenty First Century City, emailed it through, and Downing Street responded within five minutes that that was definitely the favourite. Whether Samantha or David Cameron were on the adjudication panel, we don't know.
Did he receive any feedback from Downing Street or, indeed, the White House, about how the picture went down with the Obamas? Apart from Downing Street thanking him for the picture, he doesn't know how it was received or where it's been hung. But it's enough for Ben Eine to know that one of his pictures has it made on to the wall of the most powerful man in the world. Would he have given one to George Dubya, by the way? Probably not...
More of Ben Eine's work can be seen on his website:
by Ashley Morrison
Ashley is a copywriter, blogger and editor