The street artist chats Obama, new Zippo collab and more.
In the game for over three decades, Ben Eine – professionally known as Eine – is one of the world’s most famous street artists. Known for his signature pop art-esc typography, he’s been hailed as one of the best in the world, been given a platform to create art globally, and in 2010 David Cameron famously gifted Barack Obama a painting by Eine as an “official gift” (not quite sure what that means either, but it sounds like a big deal).
Now, Eine’s created the largest piece of art in the UK with a new mural in an east London carpark, done in collaboration with Zippo. Inspired by the challenge to create something beautiful on a challenging surface, the humongous piece of art took over 500 hours to complete and required 2,850 litres of recycled paint, a 200-litre bathtub for mixing, 18-inch wide rollers, and a team of 30 supporting volunteers and six artists.
As Eine explains, “I love to paint and beautify the most unexpected of places – I’ve painted everything from doorways to trains but have always wanted to do something really huge and different. Painting on the ground was a cool challenge because you can’t just stand back and see what you’re doing. We used drones, string and all sorts to make sure it looked how I imagined, and check that it was spelt right! Seeing the final satellite footage was amazing, I got to create a unique stamp on my home town – a pretty awesome achievement”.
Eager to find out more, we spoke to Eine about this latest project, how he got into street art, and what’s coming up next.
So how did you first get involved with street art?
At the age of 14, so about 84, I got involved in graffiti for loads of years. Then I got arrested loads for doing illegal graffiti and got sent to prison. This was around the time that Banksy just went to London, Shepard Fairy was beginning to do stuff in LA, so this weird little thing was beginning to evolve and I saw that as a way to continue painting illegally but not get arrested. So that’s why I started doing it.
Do you think artists like Banksy becoming so popular has had an affect on your own work?
I definitely believe that Banksy is one of the reasons why street art and the street art movement is as popular and as successful as it is. He basically tried very hard to turn street art into an art movement. People genuinely prefer movements as opposed to just one clever person showing off.
Do you think he’s succeeded or do you think there’s still somewhere to go?
Time will tell. He’s definitely succeeded – look at the hotel he did, look at the project he did in New York a few years ago, look at the Barely Legal show. He has been very responsible for propelling this from a bunch of idiots that link over Instagram to an actual proper art movement.
So with your own stuff, why were you drawn to predominantly doing letters?
I was always a graffiti writer. I’ve always had an interest in typography and especially handmade typography, like hand carved woodblock printing, repetitive patterns, and I think that really shows in the work that I do.
What’s been the highlight of your street art career so far?
Well obviously the Obama thing was quite cool. The fact that I still have a painting in Shoreditch which has been there for 12 years – which is kind of scary – and it’s protected now. Also the fact that I’m an artist that’s recognised. That’s what I’m quite proud of being, just this person from east London that does this.
Can you tell me a bit about how the Obama thing came about?
I did a project with this woman who’s good friends with Samantha Cameron, and then two weeks before I got the phone call from Downing Street I had a two page spread in The Observer. So I kind of thought that David Cameron read The Observer, Banksy said no, and Samantha Cameron knew how to get hold of me!
It’s very cool, not everyone can say that their art was given to a President.
Yeah! A friend of my girlfriend used to work with Obama a little bit and I was like “dude, where’s the painting?” and he was like “yeah, it’s in their daughter’s bedroom.” They sent someone round to my studio to pick it up and that was the last time I saw it and these people get fucking presents from everyone that ever visits them continuously all day every day, so I was like “is it just in a room full of shit presents that they only take out when someone turns up?” But no, apparently it lived in his daughter’s bedroom! They definitely have a room full of cigarette lighters, and like thousands of bottles of vodka from Putin though.
Maybe not as much vodka as Donald Trump has in his room right now…
I don’t even want to know what Donald Trump has in his room!
You’ve also been a part of Paint For Change, can you tell me a bit about that?
I got approached by a couple whose son – this guy called Tom – he was going to a music recording studio up near Old Street and got into a fight and got stabbed and died. And his parents approached me and I painted a painting next door to where the music studio was. Then on the back of that, I got approached by The Body Shop and they asked if I would be interested in doing a project. I think they originally wanted to raise £300,000 for The Body Shop shower shoes and hand cream, and on the back of this hemp hand cream that had my “change” logo on it we raised £360,000.
The interesting position that I’m in now is that I make money and I make art – like “blah, blah, who cares?” – but I’m also in the position where I can work with lots of charities. I work with a Hepatitis C charity, I work with The Big Issue a lot, I work with The Body Shop, so I use the position I’m in as much as I can to a, raise awareness and b, raise money… And also I want a knighthood.
Do you think it’s important as an artist to use your platform for better as opposed to just making art for art’s sake?
I think it’s important for me to use my position to raise money and make people aware of things and I think I have a responsibility to do that as an artist.
Your latest, massive, piece was in collaboration with Zippo. How was that to do?
It was an absolute nightmare! I normally paint on walls where I can get on a lift or scaffolding and stand back and have a look at it, but this was the biggest thing I’ve ever painted and it was on the floor so I couldn’t actually see what I was doing. Every evening just before it got dark, we flew the drone up and took photos of it, and then the next morning went back like “that’s wrong, that’s wrong, gotta fix that.” It was very very difficult and quite different to anything I’ve ever done before. I’m not one of these people to turn down a challenge, so when Zippo got in touch and asked me to take on such an unconventional canvas, I couldn’t say no. I think as designers, creatives, we have a responsibility to do things which excite people, try to push boundaries – that’s something I feel we’ve really achieved with the artwork.
And how was it collaborating with Zippo?
I was intrigued to find out that Zippo has created over 300,000 designs over the years; I love that a simple lighter has become this unconventional canvas for art. Being a street artist I’ve seen my work come and go over the years with pieces getting painted over and simply eroding. By working with Zippo I have an unlikely place that my art can live forever.
What was the inspiration behind using the word “create”?
Well we just wanted to create something to encourage people to create things. We bounced around a lot of different words, but were like “yeah, create works!”
And finally, what’s next?
I’m doing three big projects in Japan, I’m doing a project in Moscow, in Columbia, and there’s definitely other things but I can’t think of them at the moment! But yeah, being very busy. We don’t stop.