The return of Ben Eine, street artist
Ben Eine, the street artist famous for painting letters of the alphabet on shops in Shoreditch, told me that he had never been able to persuade more than three shopkeepers in a row to let him do his paintings on their shutters – but now, Jessica Tibbles, the enterprising curator of the Electric Blue Gallery in Middlesex St, in a act of heroic bravado, has persuaded twenty six to grant permission for Ben to paint a whole alphabet.
This grand endeavour, painting “a” to “z” sequentially on shutters along the entire length of the street, is a community initiative in which the traders of Petticoat Lane have come together to welcome an artist, bringing vibrant colour to these grey streets at the border of the City. On one side of Middlesex St are the dilapidated nineteenth century shops of Tower Hamlets, which exist in sharp contrast to the modernist block belonging to the City of London on the other side. Yet Ben Eine’s alphabet, which now adorns both sides of Middlesex St proposes a sympathetic conversation. His letters, deriving from nineteenth century woodblock display types, draw the eye to appreciate the details and proportion of the brick terraces, while the bright colour palette that he employs enlivens the geometric concrete edifice opposite. Even though the architectural language may in discord, Ben’s happy paintings humanise the environment, utilising a vocabulary that everyone can relate to, thereby unifying the streetscape.
Anyone that has walked through Petticoat Lane over recent Saturdays will have witnessed Ben at work on this magnum opus, and I enjoyed the privilege of his company last weekend as he worked his way from “n” to “r”. His Shoreditch alphabet has become inextricable from the identity of its location, and the popularity of these works have led Ben to paint them in Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Osaka, Tokyo and Budapest. Ben admitted to me that he has now painted more than two hundred letters of the alphabet on shutters, and waved his dirty finger in the air playfully, proudly displaying the thickened skin upon the tip of his forefinger, where he presses the nozzle on the can, formed as his hand accustomed to spray painting over the years.
Ben grew up in South London, but he has affectionate memories of when his mother brought him to Petticoat Lane to buy him his first grown up leather jacket at eleven years old. Today he is excited to be back and bringing his witty enigmatic vision to play upon this famous street. It is the very first time Ben has painted lower case letters, a new departure that reflects the significance of this commission, and he showed me an outline of the complete alphabet he drew, that he carries in his bag for reference, though I never saw him look at it.
Each time he sets out, Ben puts enough spray paint for three letters in his bag, but does not decide in advance upon the colour combinations, both to avoid repeating preferred schemes and to invite a wild element into the composition. Ben works fast, each letter takes less than an hour, commencing by sketching the body of the letter, establishing the horizontal and vertical lines, then adding the background but leaving space for the outline of the letter. Although in the first instance Ben has only bought spray cans in colours he likes, he says the first two colours for each letter can almost be chosen at random. The most important decisions are the colour for the surround and the colour of the horizontal stripes within the body of the letter, the latter being the crucial element to the success of each painting as a composition.
I was wary of talking to Ben and interrupting his furious pace, but he read my thoughts, turning from the shutter with his can in hand and declaring generously with a cock-eyed grin, “You can ask me questions while I work. I can paint and talk at the same time.” Although he is a married man with three children, Ben retains the charisma of an artful street urchin, with his pants falling down, his glasses that are always squint and his habit of rocking on the balls of his feet, as if he might run off any time. There is a magic moment when he takes a can and gives it a shake while standing in front of a new shutter, taking in the potential with a single gaze. The intense shaking of the can manifests the accumulating thoughts in Ben’s mind. It is a rush of mental energy that culminates in the first lines he paints, defining the entire image, and drawn with such confidence, as if he were tracing an invisible image that was already there – which it is, in his mind’s eye.
“I hate doing ‘o’s!” admitted Ben, rolling his eyes with good natured irony, as he traced out a huge full moon in pale blue,“You spend all your time painting circles.” The blue barely registered on the steel shutter, but when Ben added the violet background, it jumped into relief. The colours spoke to each other. Then the drama ramped up a level, as he approached the shutter with a new can to commence the outline. In an instant, the pale blue popped when he added the red, causing the whole painting to sing. Finally, he added yellow horizontal stripes and the whole composition unified in a moment of exhilaration for Ben. He had reconciled all the elements into a harmonious whole, and raised a paint-stained hand in triumph.
All of Ben’s painting is a performance, and on Saturday afternoon there was a constant crowd of passers-by, shopkeepers, residents, and a few stray tourists, all rapt by the spontaneous drama of Ben at work. An elegant Nigerian lady came out of her shop, selling African batik fabrics, to admire Ben’s “q” which matched the tones of her colourful outfit. “Nice one!”, she cried in delight. Then a senior gentleman, walking slowly with a zimmer frame emerged from Petticoat Square and halted to gather his strength and take in Ben’s dazzling “o.” “It’s looking good!” he exclaimed, filled with sudden animation as he cast his eyes up and down the street in pleasure to see the whole alphabet.
Although there is an immense cultural history in Petticoat Lane, ever since the Jewish people left half a century ago there has also been a sense of absence in these streets. The residents and traders there have shown a sense of vision and community in supporting Ben Eine to create this glorious gallery of joyful, quirky paintings celebrating life and the city. I hope this unlikely alphabet will bring more people to appreciate this neglected corner of East London. Go and take a look for yourself.