Oct. 20, 2011

Ben Eine

Let’s talk about the BRIGHTERFASTER piece above proxy: why did you choose that space for those words? 

I’ve never been to San Francisco before. I’d been invited over a few times but it never worked out. I got an invitation to do a show at While Walls [Gallery, Larkin Street, San Francisco], which I thought was a pretty cool gallery, so I said yes. San Francisco has been on my list of places to go for a long time – I wanted to make my show a big deal and paint as much as possible in the streets. I knew San Francisco was pretty art-friendly, so through the gallery and through people I knew here, I started to find places to paint. I came over for about a month at the beginning of March to the show at White Walls and hooked up with the owners of the [BRIGHTERFASTER] wall. I sent them some stuff of things I’d done in London and they said, “Yeah cool, you can paint that.”

My show at White Walls was: bigger, brighter, louder, faster – positive words thrown together. BRIGHTERFASTER just fit. Everything I paint is site-specific – it has to fit on the wall that I’m painting it on. There are things that I want to say but I can’t because the wall’s not right.

How do you decide where to break words, or size the phrase?

Basically, the height of the wall designates the height of each row – so in BRIGHTERFASTER you could have three or four rows. My problem with this wall [site of: GREATADVENTURE on Octavia Street at Page Street] was the width between the windows. The first letter I sketched up on this was the ‘E’ and then that gave me the size of each letter going left or right of the ‘E.’

So you want to achieve a total encasing of the wall, and then from there you size out the dimensions of each letter. That jumps ahead to this idea about the density of London: is it kind of exciting to have this long view – across Octavia and Patricia’s Green – to project your work so massively?

We’ve been lucky in America because we’ve been able to get on roofs and get these really unique shots; those are the money shots. Those are the shots you’ll use when you make a book in ten years time of your life. I’ve painted stuff in London that you cannot photograph in one shot. I grew up doing graffiti and we’d paint trains – you could never get the whole carriage in one photo. My whole life I’ve always patched things together.

Did you get permission for every street piece you did in San Francisco?

I’m trying to get a work visa, as America is quite a big market with regard to stuff that I sell. I don’t get paid to paint but it would be nice to get a work visa rather than traveling on a tourist’s visa. So I don’t want to get arrested. Once I get a work visa, I don’t give a shit.

But within London you still do a lot of illegal painting?

It’s what’s easier; if it’s easier to talk to the owner and get permission then I’ll do it that way. If it’s easier to just walk up on a Sunday morning and paint it….

So there’s some bureaucratic gauging….

Yeah, it’s like, people know who I am. What I do generally has a positive message behind it, and it’s better than what was there before so even without permission that owner’s are happy to have it. It takes a lot longer to get permission to paint walls than it does to actually paint walls. Sometimes you find this sick wall and you’re never going to find out who owns it, so just paint it.

Or, the owners live in the suburbs and they’re never going to see it anyway.

I can deal with the cops, the cops are cool; I explain to them what I’m doing and they recognize my style. I don’t look like a teenager, I don’t do it in the middle of the night; I do it in the daytime with a big yellow jacket, ladders, and wet-paint tape. I make it look like my job.

That’s interesting, the more gutsy and official you look the easier it is.

Totally. The only person who can tell me to stop doing it is the owner of the wall. And if he doesn’t show up, then the cops take your name and address and photograph your ID.

On the topic of the law as a navigator of art and dictating whether or not a piece happens – do you want talk about the kind of designation or authority?

Well, if you look at how street art has evolved in different cities – Brazil, London, New York, Los Angeles – London’s got stencils, America’s got posters, Brazil’s got this weird Os Gemeos style. It’s all got a lot to do with the culture, the type of paint that you can get there, and the police. Graffiti writers will evolve and do what they can get their name up – posters, stencils, and window-etch. Within street art you see a strong cultural mix around the world coming out because of the materials and the law.

I know you have stuff in galleries as well, but let’s go back to the site-specific aspect and the city as context. I always think of graffiti as accentuating scale, and revealing how huge the everyday context is.

To me, this is a dull, boring blank wall that no one’s going to look at. I’ll come along and put something on it and make it a focal point. What I do and how I do it is positive, uplifting, and there’s a good message there. Even if I took this message from somewhere negative, everyone is going to interpret it in their way and put their own meaning to it.

It’s kind of funny you should say that because I actually interpreted BRIGHTERFASTER as this cynical comment on consumerism, like the myth of brighter-bigger-cheaper-better.

Yeah, totally, I look at some of the pieces I did for the White Walls show and they sound like I lifted them from gay porn videos or something: harder, faster, bigger. [Laughs.] Stuff like that taken out of context and put up on a wall…like GREATADVENTURE came from Biggie Smalls. It’s going to mean something different to everyone. GREATADVENTURE means a lot of different things, its life, and it’s starting a journey.

It has a real storybook feel, which sort of parallels this typeface, having an imaginative child-like quality to it. Do you want to talk for a second about how architecture shapes your work in that it is all dependent, like you said, on what is existing and built. You don’t go and build a wall and then paint it, so talk about taking the next step of building upon something…

It goes back to graffiti; graffiti writers want to get their name up in as many places as they can. It’s not about my face and who I am; it’s all about my name. I’ve taken these words and this typography and done it in a style that is recognizably me. I never sign any of the things I do on the street, I never write: EINE. We did a painting up in the Tenderloin opposite this school, and when we went back to finish itall these kids knew who I was. You know, nine and ten years old, and they’d Googled me, and they knew who I was. So, I went and had a little chat with them in their class, it’s weird.

But is it cool to think that you could make kids think about doing what they like and having a future, not just having a nihilistic relationship with graffiti culture. You know, “you could be an artist.”

I spent years making a very negative, very destructive contribution towards society. And now I feel like I’m making a positive impact on people’s environment.

You mean your art being negative before now? How so?


You think it was less “artistic?”

Hardly at all artistic, it was just fun. This [current work] is an improvement.

I read about how you do printmaking in a shop as well, were you doing those two things concurrently?

I did printmaking as well as leaving graffiti and doing street art, yeah.

So, printmaking and screen-printing are very communication-based art forms. Did working in that shop help to develop how you formulated your messages visually?

It was just a job that I put my hand up and said I’d do. I was part of this company call “Pictures On Walls”; it was a bunch of street artists from around the world. People wanted to buy our stuff and we didn’t have anything to sell so we set up this company. It was with Banksy, Jamie Hewlett….Oh, I got to run across the road and have a piss.

Oh, right OK.

Just be a second.


So while you were gone your friend was telling me about how [British Prime Minister] David Cameron gave Obama a painting by you as an official gift. I totally missed that! [Laughs.] What did Obama give Cameron?

Who’s the American artist that does typography? [Ed Ruscha.]

[A guy comes up and offers Eine some candy: “I picked these up at the strip club yesterday.”]

Yeah, cool, I’ll have the Starburst, the purple please. Anyway, he also does petrol stations.

I just wondered if Obama gave him like, a cigar.

The interesting thing was that Samantha Cameron [wife of the Prime Minister] couldn’t fly because she was pregnant, so none of the press was going to be talking about what the wives were wearing. So, that kind of heightened the interest in the art.

It’s kind of a funny thing because Cameron is pretty conservative right, and has cut funding for the arts quite a bit.

Well, if it were Blaire, he would’ve picked Banksy.


Yeah, totally.


Just ’cause he doesn’t think.

[Laughs.] He’s just part of the herd?

[Cameron] thought about it; it was weird and totally out of the blue.

Do you want to talk for a second about how this is public art, the reactions of the public, and if you care? Is it funny?

To me, it’s funny. But, you know everyone has their own interpretation. 99% of people enjoy what I do even I do it for my own selfish reasons, with my own message behind it.

It’s really a social experience to be out here. Looking at Andy Vogt’s piece down the road – everyone keeps walking by and asking him if his sculpture is a coffee bar.

My stuff is a lot easier to interpret. To me, a lot of art is about a simple, effective understanding.

There seem to be some similarities between how proxy and graffiti utilize architecture. Does architecture affect your work?

Yes, as a backdrop. Obviously the size and the shape of a building will massively affect what I am going to write on this wall, which then affects the message. When I was in Japan, I painted loads of shutters [roll-up doors] in front of fashion shops. But they were all fucking fashion shops with English names. So, although I’m in Japan, the photograph doesn’t tell you you’re in Japan. Architecture interprets where and what I paint. Without that, it’s just another painting anywhere.

Does it feel different painting here in San Francisco as opposed to other cities around the world?

The kids who do graffiti here have got more of a jealous or negative attitude to what I’m doing.

Do you talk to a lot of kids, the taggers around here?

No, I haven’t really met them. I know a lot of the older generation. The younger kids, I don’t know, they just don’t like what I am doing.

How come?

I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting big walls, free paint and scaffolding? And, I’m a gay street artist? Maybe they got no idea I spent 20 years vandalizing shit and painting trains, and they think I’m one of these new kids? Whatever. “What’s these people from London doing coming up and taking our city? Let’s fire-extinguish his walls!” [Referring to the graffiti on Eine’s graffiti.] But I would’ve done the same when I was younger, so it’s all fun.

We might get a stop-motion camera on top of one of the apartment buildings opposite proxy to sort of track the evolution of the project. I was thinking about proxy as building up and up while BRIGHTERFASTER sort of decays.

That’s the other thing about San Francisco; I had to sign all these things saying that if they were to build a building in front of my piece I wouldn’t protest as artist. It’s like, listen man: I come, I paint a building, I take a photograph, and after that I don’t care.

It seems maybe very “San Francisco” to even assume you would have any degree of authorship.

Yeah, like I can stop someone from buying a piece of land because I had some artwork there.

Somebody here would try that! [Laughs.] Which is great. So, how do you decide on practical things like the colors you use? Is it based on the canvas of the building?

Basically, the last time I was here I had a big pot of white and a big pot of orange, and I mixed it together and we painted this wall. And we’re back six weeks later and the orange is still there, and we’ve got a pot of red. We try to do things as effectively as we can.

Because it is usually done in about a day?

Yeah, three days maximum.

So, even if you get permission and have the support of a gallery, you are still operating on a pretty self-generated resourcefulness, very off-the-cuff.

Totally. I’ve been invited to paint something at Beijing Design Week, and they’ve sent me photographs of places that we can paint, and they’re like, “Can you mock up what you’re going to do?” And, I’m like, until I actually get there, get a feel for the area, and see the wall, I can’t work out exactly what I’m going to do.

So how do you work out what you’re going to do? What do you mean by that?

Just like, people only ever photograph the wall, and never what’s going on behind the wall, or what’s looking at the wall. Is it a casino? Is it a school? Is it near a shopping center? Is it a racetrack? Especially in China, if there’s like 100,000 gamblers behind me, that’s going to change what I write.

So, it’s some combination of scale, perspective, and the social surrounding. How do you feel about what happens to your work in the end? Would you want to “fix” everything if you had limitless time and money?

No. 99.9% of everything I’ve done in the last 30 years has been cleaned off, so, I’m used to it. It’s going to affect the owners of the building a lot more than it’s going to affect me.

Interview by envelope a+d and originally appeared in the zine ON SITE IN THE CITY.