UK street and fine artist Ben Eine landed in San Francisco a couple weeks back in preparation for his current show at White Walls Gallery, “Greatest.” Former screen printer for Banksy, Eine’s contributions to the UK street art scene are widely documented, his shutter paintings can be found throughout London and are considered a cultural landmark for the city. More recently, Eine’s work was the subject of a much discussed gift exchange between Prime Minister David Cameron and President Obama, Hi-Fructose correspondent Maggie Pike sits down with Eine for an interview to discuss the new show, Eine’s past, and the delicate nature of street art and vandalism. Opening night photos by Antonette Streeter.
First, the most basic question: what inspired your name Eine?
Nothing at all inspired it. I had this tag that I had been arrested for a lot of times so that police knew who I was and I was going to start writing in the London Underground and they’re a little bit more proactive in arresting you. So I couldn’t write my name or the tag I was used too, so I started writing “one”, and “uno” and “eine”, different version of the number one and eine just looked the best and fitted, and so it stuck.
Since you’ve been in San Francisco you have been painting non-stop in the street, working on completing the entire alphabet on business shutters and several gigantic walls, do you always hit a city this hard when you visit?
As much as I can yeah, totally. You’re in town for X amount of time and you want to make as big a splash as you can. And the kind graffiti where I come from is about getting up and that’s what I like doing.
How many cans of paint have you gone through just in the past few weeks?
2000 cans of Montana Hardcore… Thank you Montana.
San Francisco has a well known Letter’s man too, Victor Reyes. (Links to images of his M, R and H). Since you’ve been painting around town have you come across any of his pieces?
No I haven’t. Which is a shame, because there are a couple pictures in the email. I think I’ve heard of him before but I don’t really look at magazines or go on website and shit like that so, unless I physically see it myself I don’t really know what’s going on in other cities. Most of the time I’m stuck on a scaffolding or walking around the streets in the middle of the night.
I read in past interviews that you’ve described your style as “Happy Graffiti”, can you talk about what that means to you?
I spent years and years and years just tagging stuff and vandalizing things and, not that I cared, but I was making areas look worse. And when I stopped graffiti and started doing street art I was kind of improving them. And it’s still kinda graffiti but going back to its rawest, most basic elements and it puts a smile on the people’s faces. You know, when you do a whole street of the shutters, it looks like some kind of crazy Eine town, and they are bright and colorful and simple and they don’t mean anything and yeah, Happy Graff.
I first started following your work after seeing an image of your piece that spells out “Vandalism”. I think it’s a great piece that makes the street art vs. graffiti debate approachable to a wider public audience. What’s your take on the two?
I think it’s changing but, people see somebody with a can of spray paint and they think graffiti, tags, find the police. People are scared of graffiti, and that was the reason I wrote “scary” and things in that way. People are scared if you can come down my road and do your tags, does that mean you can come down my road and steal my car? Does that mean you can break into my house? If you can paint something without getting caught, what else can you get away with, without getting caught? So it’s a reflection of how under policed or under cared for a neighborhood is. However, I don’t personally think that’s true.
But it’s interesting because now it’s in galleries and museums. In the 80’s when the New York writers tried to have shows in America, I don’t think that that was the right time to do it, because graffiti still shocked people and freaked people out but people who buy street art and graffiti they know, their mates did graffiti or they did graffiti, so they’re not freaked out by it. It was just one or two generations before it’s time and now, those people have money. Now all these people are running advertising agencies and they’ve got good jobs and they used to write graffiti or their mates did. They’ve grown up with it, it’s not scary, it’s not freaky, they think it’s cool.
Why do you think the two are viewed so differently by society? To some, one word painted in your style is considered approachable and friendly, while the same word painted wildstyle might be considered threatening.
Because you can’t read it, I do simple stuff and I try not to make it graffiti and I’ve never tagged any of my street pieces because I had a name in the graffiti world before I was kinda going to the street art world. I consciously decided not to sign my street pieces because it would have turned it into a piece of graffiti and I didn’t want it to be graffiti, I wanted it to be street art. So yeah, it’s freaky because they can’t read it, they don’t know what it is, they can’t understand it.
I’ve found that street artists are often great story tellers. Would you mind sharing a memorable experience from any time in your career painting in the streets?
There’s loads, they’re all funny. It’s just funny when you’re painting something really big, that’s going to take you all day and you’re doing it in the day time and the police walk up and they are like “have you got permission to do this?” Any you talk to them, and they just drive off with a happy smile on their faces, because they believe you and you totally haven’t. Yeah, I like that. I like the fact that I don’t have to run away anymore, even when I’m painting stuff without permission.
What about the San Francisco font, was that inspired here?
No, it came from an old Philip Morris Font, the tobacco company. And it was really ancient and there was a “P” and an “M” that was really cool. So from that “P” and “M” I drew the whole A to Zed and I’ve been fucking around with it for ages. I painted canvases similar a few years ago but it wasn’t right and it didn’t work. So coming out to San Francisco I got those old scraps of paper out and redrew it and redrew it and made it work. And made it into a stencil and this is kind of the first time that I was going to show this font. I would have called it the “Philip” font but no one would have bought it, it sounds crap. So I called it the SF font and spunked it up a bit.
Interview by Maggie Pike for Hi-Fructose.com In addition to writing for Hi-fructose.com Maggie Pike also runs the website Gone Tomorrow SF which covers the world of San Francisco Street Art. Check it out: http://GoneTomorrowSF.com.
Opening night photos by Hi-Fructose correspondent Antonette Streeter.