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Even as an adult, Ben Eine recalls with childlike awe the first time he laid eyes on a New York City subway car transformed into a canvas for a graffiti masterpiece. Now 44, Eine was just a kid in London when crews in the Bronx began tagging trains, but he credits those elaborate, multihued "wild style" paint jobs with launching his career as an artist (and erstwhile vandal).
"These photographs of paint on the sides of trains were incredible," Eine says wistfully. "You could show these to people and they didn't look like trains until you noticed the wheels on the bottom of the carriage. It was one of the craziest, most insane things I've ever seen. I kind of made it my mission to do that."
Eine (given name: Ben Flynn) began painting the streets and tunnels of London every night after school or work. Many years, several arrests, and thousands of empty spray cans later, he ranks among the most successful street-influenced artists working today. His résumé includes a stint gallivanting around the globe with the elusive British stencil artist Banksy, a starring role during British Prime Minister David Cameron's first state visit to the White House, and single-handedly turning a gritty London street into a colorful landmark with a huge piece that features every letter of the alphabet.
On February 5, Eine opens his first solo exhibition in New York at Judith Charles Gallery in Soho.
Speaking from his studio in San Francisco, Eine only briefly waxes nostalgic about the halcyon days of graffiti before emphasizing, sometimes bluntly, that his work has evolved into something entirely different. Now more of typographer than a tagger, Eine distills graffiti to its core essence: the study and stretching of letters. He designs fonts — his latest is a colorful, circus-inspired set of characters dubbed Cast Iron — and stencils them onto canvas. This style, he says, emerged out of frustration with the formal limitations of graffiti.
"Over the years, I just became bored," Eine says. "When I got into graffiti, it was the most exciting and amazing thing I'd ever seen. I thought it was going to change the world. Over the years, as it didn't progress, I felt it became very stagnant. I was bored by the rules that graffiti writers put upon themselves."
Instead of tagging his name over and over, Eine began painting huge individual letters in a simple, bold script on the steel shutters of London storefronts. Typically, these early street works were vibrant, with striking background colors. Eine chose the letters seemingly at random and left the pieces unsigned — a touch of mystery that contributed to his notoriety. He still takes pride in doing most of his street art illegally, but says the freedom to experiment in the studio with different designs and fonts has "fulfilled some of the promises graffiti made to me as a kid but never delivered."
"Graffiti to me was never about New York skylines or people and characters," Eine says. "It was always exploring the form of a letter, the form of words, how letters can change when put next to other letters — just wrenching and molding and stretching letters as far as you can. I stopped doing graffiti and started taking it in the opposite direction."
Eine has forged relationships with other prominent street artists, most notably Banksy. The pair met "many years ago" at a bar in London frequented by graffiti writers, and Eine chuckles as he recounts how several of his tagger friends began "taking the piss" out of Banksy for using stencils. The artists bonded and began collaborating, traveling to Palestine, Australia, Berlin, and elsewhere, "having great fun breaking the law, sticking up stencils, and avoiding capture," as Eine puts it.
"A lot of it is doing it in the daytime and making it look like it's your job to be doing it, rather than doing it at night and sneaking around," Eine explains. "It helped that we weren't kids. We were a little bit older. We were grown men with fluorescent overalls, ladders, radios, and cans of paint. We looked like painters or decorators, basically."
Eine says he's plotting several street pieces in New York in conjunction with his gallery opening, including a wall inside the jail at Rikers Island. Though he clearly still enjoys the adrenaline rush of painting without permission, he says his primary objective these days is selling art in galleries and expanding the audience for street-influenced work beyond the Urban Outfitters demographic. He grumbles that major museum curators "don't have the balls" to add street art to their contemporary collections.
Complaints about stubborn curators notwithstanding, Eine's work is already mainstream. While visiting the White House in 2010, Prime Minister Cameron presented one of Eine's paintings — featuring the words "Twenty First Century City" split into seven rows of neon-colored letters on a black background — to President Obama, in exchange for a lithograph by pop art pioneer Ed Ruscha. Eine calls it "a strange, surreal moment," and speculates that Cameron's choice had something to do with the popularity of the iconic "Hope" poster Shepard Fairey designed for the Obama campaign.
"Somebody from Downing Street thought Obama had a slight interest in street art and graffiti," Eine says. "Banksy wasn't available, so they started looking at me. I get quite a few good jobs because Bansky refuses to do them."
Calling Banksy's monthlong New York residency in October "an impossible act to follow," Eine says he has no desire to play cat and mouse with the NYPD and have vandals deface his work. But amid a digression about San Francisco taggers ruining some of his recent work, he laughs at himself for sounding like a grumpy old man cursing "those pesky little kids."
Says Eine: "Street art isn't made to last. I was young once, and I painted over plenty of pieces. Almost everything I ever painted on the street has been cleaned off at some point. But, hey, at least it's not being carved out of a wall and sold in Miami for $1 million. I'd rather it get painted over than have that happen."