The rise of Ben Eine, street artist
“It’s been mad!” announced Ben Eine, with a jubilant cock-eyed grin, when I walked over to visit him at work on a new painting in Middlesex St recently. Since I was there in June to record the origin of his project – masterminded by Jessica Tibbles of the Electric Blue Gallery - to paint the complete alphabet on the shutters of the shops, there have been significant developments. Not only did Ben complete the alphabet and the glorious “Happy” painting above, but he also achieved overnight international fame when David Cameron gave his painting “Twenty-first Century City” to Barack Obama as a gift. Now that he is the only British painter to have a picture hanging in the White House, the shopkeepers of Middlesex St are feeling justifiably proud of their foresight in permitting Ben to paint their shutters this Summer.
“For the first time in my life, I am making my living as an artist,” admitted Ben, his eyes gleaming in triumph, revealing the primary outcome of this absurd event which has transformed his reputation from that of a highly respected figure (within the confines of street art) into a household name. In the past, he worked making screenprints for others and it is even rumoured that he was the one employed to do the paintings for Banksy – but now Ben Eine is a star in his own right. And, when I arrived to shake his hand last week, there were three eager photographers and a cameraman following Ben’s every move as he undertook an ambitious mural over successive Saturdays on a wall at the Liverpool St end of Middlesex St.
Once upon a time, Ben used to get arrested regularly and only began painting the letters of the alphabet on shutters, for which he always asks permission, when a judge warned him that another conviction for criminal damage would mean a prison sentence. Happily those days are behind him now, because as a family man of forty years old with three children, this is no longer a risk he can take. He told me, with incredulous delight, that a police car pulled up recently and the officers got out to ask for his autograph for their children.
Pulling a grimace of crazed disbelief, Ben admitted he has shaken hands with the Prime Minister, “I went to visit David Cameron. I rang the doorbell at number ten and they let me in ! I had to sit and wait while he spoke to Mervyn King and then we had a chat, before he went off to have dinner with Berlusconi.” Adding breezily, “He seemed a nice man,” with a non-committal grin, revealing he has never voted in his life. In the Hackney Rd, Ben has painted his vivid personal response to these events in six-foot high letters composed of smiley faces, spelling out “The Strangest Week.” – a work which, with supreme irony, Hackney Council are threatening to paint over imminently.
Down in Middlesex St, all the media attention received by Ben’s alphabet has empowered curator Jessica Tibbles to enlist other artists to paint shutters as the project spills into the adjoining streets. At this moment, Goulston St is currently acquiring a series of monochromatic images of the beasts that once roamed here when London was a prehistoric swamp. Meanwhile Jessica’s sights are set upon Wentworth St, aiming for a total of more than three hundred painted shutters, transforming this neglected neighbourhood into an after hours gallery of street art with Ben Eine’s alphabet as the centrepiece.
Ben’s current work-in-progess uses his trademark shadowed letters to spell phrases that will only be revealed in their legible entirety when the work is completed next Saturday. I watched for several hours as, working with two assistants, Ben painted a series of red squares upon a yellow ground, in an apparently haphazard fashion, moving back and forth across the surface with a spray can in one hand and cigarette in the other, hunching his shoulders a little and cocking his head as transfers his gaze between the detail he is working on and the larger scheme of things. “I haven’t got clue what I am doing,” he declared to me with the spontaneous swagger of an experienced showman, whilst pouring himself a Jack Daniels and coke in a plastic cup, against the chill of the damp afternoon.
The very nature of this work, in which each red square corresponds to a letter spelling out the undisclosed text reveals a grand design that Ben is fully aware of. He cultivates an appealingly ego-free happy-go-lucky manner that denies his own sophistication. Yet after he went off for a break and the rain set in, there was a brightly coloured backpack left on the pavement and I realised it was Ben’s. He left it in assumption of an unspoken trust that we would take care of it for him. There is a certain touching vulnerability about this man who gleefully leaps up unstable ladders in the rain, leaning too far out with his spray can while puffing on a cigarette.
While the conception of Ben’s work is always sharp, there is an innate roughness to his work on the street, always designed to be seen from a distance and while the spectator is in motion. I noticed that some of the letters of the alphabet in Middlesex St were already peeling and usage will damage them further. Part of the mutable world of the street, Ben has accepted the ephemeral nature of his work long ago, fleeting like memories. If you go along to Middlesex St next Saturday you can experience the moment when the latest bright new work is revealed. Take the time to look for yourself, because none of these paintings will be here forever, they are the product of a moment, but – as a result of recent events – this moment belongs to Ben Eine.
You can read my earlier story The return of Ben Eine, street artist
At the North corner of the junction of Wentworth St and Middlesex St.
Looking down Middlesex St.
At the South corner of the junction of Wentworth St and Middlesex St.
Looking up Middlesex St.
Ben Eine’s “The strangest week” in the Hackney Rd.
Off the Hackney Rd.
Ben at work with an assistant in Middlesex St on Saturday August 14th.
Ben choosing the stencils for the individual letters.
Work-in-progress, pictured a week later.
The completed painting.