The crew here at White Walls has been really lucky to have London-based street artist Ben Eine camping out in our space for a little over a week now, cutting stencils, painting pieces for his gallery show “Greatest” (with support from Montana paint and Wall Space SF), and prepping before heading out to the streets to work on his outdoor pieces.
There’s been a massive amount of photo coverage related to Eine’s work while he’s been here in San Francisco – but we wanted to take a moment to talk to him a little bit about the good stuff: typography, train-painting, graffiti vs.street art, the making process, and his very first visit to our amazing city. Don’t miss the opening reception: Saturday, March 12 from 7-11 pm!
Some words from the “letter man” himself after the jump.
WW: So you’re here in San Francisco getting ready for your show “Greatest” at White Walls, and the path here has certainly been interesting. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got started making the work you’re showing today?
EINE: When I was about 14 years old, I really got into tagging. I loved it. I tagged shit for years, before I got into painting trains. Doing that got me arrested again and again, there was lots of running from the police. The last time I was out with my friends (in the train yard), I got away, but they both got arrested. Back then you would get a few months of prison time, maybe as much as 3 years. I knew that the next time I got caught it would mean a fairly extended stay in prison – so I had to stop. I loved painting so much that I had to find a way to keep making things, so I crossed over into working a bit more as a street artist about 8 years ago. It worked well for me, because I was getting really fucking bored of graffiti, you know – just the shit that goes with it, the people, the constant running from police, all that crap. The places where I was hanging out, I took up with other street artists who were beginning to work with stencils, posters and all that. I wanted to do something different, but kind of going back into the letterforms I was working with in my graffiti. It was a good decision, because in the end I didn’t get arrested.
How long has it been since you’ve painted trains or done any kind of graffiti?
It had been about 9 years, I hadn’t done anything at all in London – then just before Christmas I fell through a roof, busted up my ribs, my arm, my head, and I wasn’t in a fit state to go out of town with my family for the holiday. Christmas is a notoriously fantastic time to paint trains because nothing moves for two whole days. Since I was on my own at Christmas, I decided – fuck it, my family’s away, I’m going to have my own Christmas at the train yards, painting, with my arm in plaster. I wasn’t really in a fit running away state, and I knew that if the police showed up I wouldn’t be able to run away, and for once I didn’t care. I was prepared to go to prison, it was the first thing I had painted in London in so long, and I just had to do it. It felt good, and I didn’t get caught.
I used to paint trains with a group of people every Christmas, it’s really the best fucking time to get work done. Nearly every year for 10 years, I skipped out on Christmas dinner and elected to go out and paint entire fucking sides of train cars. One year we painted the side of an entire train, it was incredible.
How did your parents feel about you skipping out on Christmas dinner for a decade?
You know, they weren’t fully supportive of it – but they didn’t tell me not to do it either. My mom was like: “Are you fucking sure this is what you want to do? Please be careful.” My mom is pretty cool about everything actually. My dad is more like “ How the fuck do you make a living doing this kind of thing?” he’s really confused by the fact that I’m supporting my family by running around the streets and painting things all day long. I’m sure he’d much rather see me doing something else, but he doesn’t care too much.
At least being a street artist with a gallery career is a bit more of a step up from tagging walls and trains. How do you feel about the delineation between the two?
Street art brings people and revenue to your neighborhood, and graffiti scares people. You know, all of the constant tagging and the criminal element or idea that kind of goes along with it. So, buff your graffiti and stick your Banksy on the cover of the New York fucking Times.
And your work has taken you all over the world. What other cities in the U.S. have you done work in before coming to San Francisco?
I’ve been all over, New York, Los Angeles, Denver. It’s actually my first time in San Francisco, and I like the city very much. It’s been great. Just being in this place, the place of Tim Leary and Jack Kerouac and all these crazy artists and writers, and the massive gay community here – claiming this city, and being such a creative bunch, that were ostracized, and had to fight against a lot to come up. It’s a vibe in this city that is completely present. You can feel it. I love how everything here is a bit too weird, a bit too freaky, and people just do things for themselves. There are some good fucking artists here. It’s interesting how when I come to a place I never get to be like a normal tourist when I got somewhere. It’s like I’m in a place for 2 or 3 week bursts and I’m making pieces out in the street while I’m there usually, so it’s like I have a different map of the cities I visit. My map is all marked off with places you can paint, and my camera is full of photos of shutters and walls, that’s just how my brain works. I’m like a tourist of a completely different kind of city.
Have you gotten to look around much of the city since you’ve been here?
Really I mostly spend every day waking up, coming into the gallery, working on things all day long, then leaving at night to paint. We’ve been painting some shutters during the day, but I did get away to check out Haight and the Mission. The Mission was fantastic. It’s like all those artists just painted magic all over skid row. This city reminds me of how New York used to be, just real fucking grimy, and huge throwups everywhere, its what I like to see. New York is too fucking sterile now, I hate it. I hate the attitude there towards street art.
So you’re busy working on so many things for this show, can you tell us a little bit about what you’ve got going on?
I want to paint stuff around the city that mirrors the work in the show. I’ve been kicking around the new shutter font for a while, and I’m really happy to be using it in the work for the show. I had originally painted a grid of smiley faces, and made some work based on that grid, but I felt like it may have been a bit too freaky for America. Instead, I found myself drawn to the words: bigger, brighter, louder, faster. Bigger, brighter, louder faster – it just had this great fucking sound to it, you know? I then sorted through and found a bunch of words ending in –er, and –est, words that were a bit boastful in some way, and then put them in groups of 3 or 4 that sounded good together. From there I just expanded on that. I am working on a large outdoor piece that faces a schoolyard, and I chose the word “happiness,” because I felt like the kids would like it a lot. I like to consider the location when I’m painting in the street, I try to make pieces that either compliment or contradict the area that I’ve chosen to paint.
When you’re doing these site-specific works out in the street, do you enjoy the challenges that each space presents you with?
When you work out in the street, you’re definitely limited by the size and shape of the wall based on the location. In a perfect world I would much prefer to work in the street always, I enjoy the challenge of it. If I didn’t need to make a living, I would do things that way.
How do you select your color palette? Is it specific to the work?
It’s more or less the colors and paints that I really like working with. Especially things that are thick and cover in one coat – that’s something I picked up from the graffiti days. Anything reliable makes the cut usually, because there are loads of colors I really like, but they’re absolute shit. You know I’m not going to sit there and do 5 coats of yellow fucking paint, just because I like that particular yellow. The paint I like to use is the Spanish Montana, colors like electric blue, devil red, pastel orange. There used to be this amazing paint I loved, it was called turquoise hell, and it was the brightest fucking paint, covered like hell. One of my favorites.
What are some of the best ways to get away with painting in the streets?
Oh, lots of ways. In the daytime, “invisible jackets” work really well, you know, just any type of official-looking yellow or orange vest. Scaffold towers, wet paint tape, just acting as though you’re doing a day’s work. It helps to keep you from getting caught. Getting permission to paint shutters is an interesting thing, because lots of times (especially in London), I would end up being commissioned to paint shutters that were actually covered with lots of my old tags. It’s like a long time ago I fucked them up and now I’m cleaning them up. It seems fair.
The shutters are interesting, because they call to attention the work of the sign painting trade. Can you tell us a little bit about your interest in sign painting and typography?
I am massively interested in really, really old typography. Like 100 years or even older, and I’m interested in exploring and contributing to that legacy. I’ve collected absolutely hundreds of books and papers on old letterforms. I’m always looking on the internet, on eBay for these kinds of things, and I recently found a catalog called “The American Printers and Typography Catalog,” just this old catalog that these presses and foundries used to put out yearly, so of course nobody really thought to save them. Well I got into a bit of a bidding war, and I put down 50 quid, then 100, then 200, and before you know it I was bidding 300 quid on a fucking type catalog. And I still lost it to someone in America. Whoever wanted it, wanted it badly. It was probably ESPO.
Hand-cut type is so fascinating, how do you feel about the old way of making graphic lettering vs. the kinds of technologies we have now to use for that kind of work?
I fucking HATE Illustrator. It’s so sterile, everything looks the fucking same, and believe me – if I wanted to use Illustrator to make letters and have them lasercut, I could. It would save me hours. DAYS, weeks even. But there’s something about hand-cutting all the stencils that I use that’s really important to me. I love the mistakes, the miscalculations, I love the fact that they’re all handmade – it’s a fully handmade piece of art that way.
What happens to all the stencils you cut? Do you archive them?
I chuck them in the bin, just throw them away – they’re not important to me. The canvas or the painting is the final project, the stencils just get chucked once they’ve served their purpose. I’ve fucked around a little bit with layers of stencils, and screen printing over the top of them. It’s interesting, but it just didn’t feel polished to me.
So you’re still open to some level of experimentation in your work?
Oh, definitely. In a way – not now – but when I started in the street, everything was a test. I didn’t have permission, almost everything got buffed, and I didn’t care then, I just painted, took photos and people saw it in the street as long as it lasted. I didn’t care. My attitude towards this has changed a little bit over the years, what I make in the gallery now is a different thing, but I feel like they compliment each other. The work in the street I paint, I expect to never see it again.
What are some of the things you like about working in a gallery space?
I really like changing the entire look of a gallery, you know, messing with the overall feel of the space. I think that most places have shows, and the same people show up for the openings from month to month, and I enjoy sort of throwing a wrench in the middle of how mundane that can be. Half the challenge of a gallery show is figuring out how to change the space.
How do you feel about being in a position to travel the world, making art, essentially living the dream?
It’s a weird, funny life. Full of surprises. I definitely didn’t plan it, but I love every fucking minute of it. I’m really thankful.
Photos courtesy of G2sf @ flickr.You Might Also Like: