Words & Photography: Jack Phillips

Eine’s tattooed hands traverse the width and breath of his body, patting down each section of his torso with a pathologist’s sense of methodical precision. He stops when his fingers find the bulging pocket containing his cigarettes; a black box with the words “SMOKING KILLS” emblazoned across both sides. It seems symbiotic that the 49-year-old should be so frantically interested in the box and its contents, after all, the chain-smoking artist has made a career by toying with typography with a cigarette dangling from his lips.

Having discovered graffiti through the 1984 book Subway Art, exploring New York’s graffiti movement, in his teens, Eine was quick to take up tagging around London. Drawn to the rebelliousness of the act as well as the creative outlet it offered, he was hooked. “That book blew my fucking mind,” he recalls with animated glee. “The adrenaline and the whole process was like an adventure.”

Eine’s art hangs proudly on every wall of his studio, interspersed with paintings by other artists he has collected over the years. Yet Eine’s work stands out. Colourful canvases brandishing potent words like “LOVE”, “RIOT” and “TRUTH” are sharp yet ambiguous whilst loaded phrases like “WORKING CLASS HERO” and “LOVE WILL TEAR US APART” suggest more specific social hypocrisies and contradictions.

One eye-catching piece with a background of pink glitter glows under garish strip lighting. But it is the words that hold the real power for Eine. The aesthetics of his trademark Circus font type are merely a kind of delivery system. A beautiful syringe, if you will.

ICON: What were you like as a kid?

EINE: I was very fast at running and I had a super vague interest in art. My parents were not creative. My dad was a cab driver and my mum was, well a mum. I was mouthy, cocky and cheeky. Teachers would say I was easily distracted.

ICON: And were you a scribbler? Were you drawn to drawing early on?

EINE: I am quite mathematical so I was always into word and math puzzles, train your mind kind of stuff. I would happily sit and do jigsaw puzzles, things that would put me in a zone. I was happy on my own.

ICON: So were you introverted?

EINE: No, not at all. There were two sides; on my own and the leader of the gang. I was the one that got my mates into graffiti.

ICON: What was it that drew you to graffiti and the culture around it?

EINE: The motivation was pure. The adrenaline and the whole process is like an adventure. It’s a mission. You scout a train yard. You work out ways to get in and out. You work out where the cleaners come in, where the police would come from. Some train yards are underground and you’re invariably doing it in the middle of the night.

You’re never standing on a platform, you’re standing on the floor and you can only reach the bottom of the window. So to paint a whole train is a huge process. Trains won’t run with graffiti so you’re risking all of this just to get a photo and maybe a glimpse. But, there is no better feeling than standing on a platform waiting for your train, because at that point it is your train. Your name is all over it.

ICON: You get excited talking about those times. Does your studio practice bring you the same joy?

EINE: It’s different. For me, if somebody likes what I have produced enough to hand over their hard earned money then I get a sense of joy and achievement with that.

ICON: Why did you feel the need to move out of graffiti and into the art world?

EINE: I kept getting arrested and it was coming to a point where I really had to make a decision. Tagging is the purest form of graffiti and now you have street art, and that’s an acceptable version, a watered down version. It’s like Indian food down Brick Lane, it’s an English interpretation that has been tailored for a specific market. I chose to stay out of prison (laughs).

ICON: When you get into the studio what are you thinking about on any given day?

EINE: I always have something to do. Recently I was working on an update project for a famous piece of mine called “SCARY”, a piece on Rivington Street in London. We approached a charity and said we wanted to update “SCARY” and asked if they wanted to borrow it. So we gave it a yellow background and drew moustaches all over it (referring to the acts of growing moustaches to raise money for men’s health charity Movember every November) with the words “Globally 60 men die by suicide every hour”. It’s pretty potent.

ICON: Words obviously hold power for you. You have words in your paintings, you have them tattooed on your arms, your neck and head. Why?

EINE: We communicate via the written word and it’s so unbelievably simple. A painting can be interpreted so many ways but so can words. Take “SCARY” for example. Taken out of a sentence and the words in front and behind that define it, it becomes something bigger. My first introduction into art was graffiti and that is about words and letters, about redesigning and redefining words and inventing new fonts, typography and it feels natural for me to do. When I was doing graffiti I didn’t realise I was becoming a font smith but throughout the course of my graffiti career I become interested in old ways of printing, sign writers, woodblock printing and I always like the handmade element of things.

ICON: You say that you get a kick out of making but you have also said that you have made stuff that you hate so much you throw it away. You obviously have a notion of what is good and what isn’t?

EINE: This is the stuff that will represent me when I am dead. For me to let something out of the studio it has to be something I am proud of.

ICON: Do you think anybody can make art?

EINE: No. Not everybody can be a doctor. Similarly, not everyone can be creative because it’s not how their brain works. I have to create, I have to do something. I am not happy doing nothing.

ICON: You’ve also created a business? Has that been an enjoyable process for you? It’s a long way from the train yard isn’t it?

EINE: It’s not the most enjoyable. I am incredibly lucky that I have turned something that I love doing into a business and a way of making money which feels sometimes like an impossible task to do. The hardest working people I know are my artist friends who have turned their craft into a business. Half the year I am in some mad country that I have never been to painting something for people that are interested, fascinating and engaging. I couldn’t be happier doing that.

ICON: The way you present yourself says much about who you are, as much as your work does. You have tattoos, you dress a certain way. Is that a conscious decision, to stick out?

EINE: I don’t care what people think that much. If you’re offended by my tattoos its your problem. I change the colour of my skin the way I changed the colour of trains. I was followed down the road in Morocco once with someone calling me Hitler. I like the fact that I can dress a certain way and people assume I am a certain way. I’ve been stopped from entering places because I have face tattoos.

ICON: With regards to your work, do you feel confined by your style?

EINE: Yes. On one hand I am confined by it. People want to buy a Ben Eine, something that looks like Ben Eine so there is an expectation. It is restrictive but I also have the opportunity to work on other things with other people.

ICON: With so much cross over with street art, street culture and fashion, what are your thoughts on working with brands?

EINE: I work with brands often. Recently, I collaborated with Zippo. I just painted a mural at the Nike HQ in Amsterdam and I am open to working with any like-minded brand, as long as its not a weapons company or sex smugglers (laughs).

ICON: You mean writing something like “WORKING CLASS HERO” on a missile?

EINE: Or “FUCK YOU PAY ME” on the side of an exocet missile.

ICON: The photo would be something?

EINE: Yeah, but imagine the backlash…

This article was first published in the 4th print edition of ICON International, available for purchase online here. 

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