Accalimed street artist Ben Eine recently collaborated with the American lighter brand Zippo to create an artwork spanning 17,500 square metres on a sparse, industrial ground in East London. The artist speaks to Guardian 20 about the challenges involved in making this massive mural, and his fondness for the typographic style.
Q. How special is this particular work to you? And what inspired you to create this mural art in collaboration with Zippo?
A. This work with Zippo is very special to me. It’s the biggest piece I’ve ever done and definitely one of the most challenging. As a street artist, I’ve seen my work come and go over the years. So to work with Zippo and have my art printed on a lighter was a very unique opportunity. I couldn’t sketch something up on the floor like I normally would on the wall, so that made it hard, but we’d fly a drone up in the air at the end of each day of painting to see how the overall piece was looking. At the beginning, I worked through Zippo’s back catalogue of designs to help zero in on a colour palette and that process inspired the word “CREATE”: it’s a nod to self-expression.
Q. What were the challenges involved in creating the mural?
A. The whole thing was a challenge. Usually, I work with a scissor lift and can see and alter any mistakes made quite easily, but because this piece was on the ground I couldn’t do that. We had to rely on drone footage; we’d look back at the images at the end of each day, then go back and mend any mistake the next morning. It’s a massive piece which came with a lot of problems, especially when it came to sketching up at the start. Each letter was around 20 metres big, and we had to use bathtubs to mix the paint. Eventually we managed to figure out a way of working and it looked close to perfect when it was finished.
Q. Your work has been gifted to Barack Obama and you have also worked for the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi and other big names. Is there any one artwork of yours that you cherish the most?
A. Both of those pieces are huge achievements for me, but my favourites is Scary—in Shoreditch, East London. It’s one of my oldest pieces of work, I think it’s been there for about 12 years now. My daughter has actually tagged her own name on it, so that’s obviously another reason I’m so attached to it.
Q. How do such murals add value to the urban scenery? And why are they important to the fabric of city life?
A. Murals add a touch of colour to a boring brick wall and convey a bit of happiness to passersby. Street art has become part of the fabric of a creative society and I like that it’s not exclusive— anyone can see my work as they walk past. People nowadays are always snapping pictures of my art and uploading to Instagram, so it sort of lives on through technology even if it’s painted over.
Q. When did you make your first work of street art and what was it about? Also, when and why did you first think about becoming a street artist?
A. If you go way back to the beginning, when I started doing graffiti, it was just very basic stuff. I wasn’t actually very “artistic”, I just wanted to be a part of hip-hop culture and thought it might be my way in. Going from graffiti to street art was a slow process, but I developed my own style using typography and over time it became globally recognisable.
Q. Tell us about your early influences.
A. Originally my influences have been spray can and subway art, New York graffiti, but also artists like Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, and Basquiat. As my work evolved and developed, my influences and inspiration started to change. Now it comes from hand-made typography, and I’m also really interested in typography and sign writing in India—artists there have a very unique style that you don’t really see here in the UK.
Q. Your typographic style makes your artwork unique. What do you like the most about this style?
A. At the beginning I just wanted to do something that was totally different. Banksy, Shephard [Fairey] and D-Face were on the scene creating really great pieces of art, and I wanted to do something just as good but also stand out just as much. I started exploring typography and how it could work well with graffiti, and now I’ve been doing it for so long that my work is instantly recognisable. It’s become my thing.
Q. What does street art mean to you? And how relevant do you think this form has become in the contemporary world?
A. Street art is my life. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I love being able to walk down the street and see work from people all around the world that have visited London and left their little marks. I’ve travelled to almost every country in the world and had the opportunity to paint. I think street art is becoming more relevant as galleries have started to open their minds to something that thousands of people all over the world are creating.
Q. You have been doing street art for more than two decades. Do you think popular attitudes towards it have changed? If so, how?
A. When I first started creating street, art there weren’t a lot of galleries or print companies around, and it wasn’t taken very seriously. Fast forward 15 years, and it’s a serious industry that people can make money from. There’s a difference between graffiti and street art and in that street art is there to make the area look better and add a bit of colour to the community.
Q. How do you ideate for your artworks and how long does the process takes?
A. This recent project with Zippo took over 500 hours from start to finish, and that was just the sketching up and painting part. My style is quite developed, so I usually know how the letters are going to look, it’s more about deciding what colours to work with. Obviously I have some favourites, but if I’m working with a brand then we choose the colours together and that’s great because all of my work ends up looking quite different.
Q. Could you tell us about your upcoming projects?
A. It’s going to be hard topping this project with Zippo, but there are a few things coming up. I can’t reveal too much, but make sure to keep an eye on my social channels over the next few months.