Edgy artists bring street culture to Middlebury College
MIDDLEBURY — Ben Eine wasn’t hard to find Thursday morning, on a lift 30 feet above the ground in the atrium of the Mahaney Center outside the Middlebury College Museum of Art.
He was painting a mural to promote the opening of a new exhibit called “Outside In: The Art of the Street”, which is dedicated to showcasing street art by more than a dozen artists, including Eine.
As an artist, Eine has achieved both critical and commercial success. He’s staged gallery shows on two continents and his work hangs at the White House. The trajectory of his career mirrors that of street art itself — from a medium disparaged as a public nuisance to a movement that now claims some of the most recognizable artists in the world.
Taking a break from the mural — a massive, multicolored diagonal pattern surrounding the entrance to the museum — Eine chatted about how he makes a living as an artist, and refuses to settle too comfortably into an art form, should it no longer challenge him.
In jeans, a hooded sweatshirt and sneakers, the native of England obliged to an interview after stepping outside to smoke a cigarette. He’s skinny and peered across the table at which we sat from behind thick-framed glasses.
As a boy Eine showed no proclivity toward art. But that changed when he was 14, in 1984, when the hip-hop scene that originated in New York in the 1970s first landed in London.
“I was the right age at the right time, and slightly curious,” he said, sitting casually, the fingers of his tattooed hands intertwined. “I didn’t want to be doing the same things my friends were doing.”
He became enamored with the three major elements of hip-hop culture: the music, break dancing and graffiti. He said he was a terrible break dancer, and had a vague interest in art. That’s when he came across “Subway Art,” a book by photographers Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant of painted subway cars in the U.S.
“I think it might have been the first thing I ever stole,” Eine said. “I pushed this book down the front of my pants and went home and it became my bible.”
Outside of any formal training, Eine studied the work of American graffiti artists and sought to bring the art form to Europe, with his own twist.
“For the next 20 years I ran around with cans of spray paint tagging and painting trains, and that took me all over Europe and different parts of the world,” he said.
Spray painting public and private property without permission is, by its nature, illegal. Eine said during that span he was arrested in several different countries — at least 20 times in England alone, with a half-dozen convictions — and saw many of his friends sentenced to prison for tagging trains.
Now 44, Eine said in recent years he looked to move on from graffiti.
“When I started I saw it as the most important art form, as the kids taking control,” he said. “Twenty years later it hadn’t progressed and I was bored with it. And it was about the time that street art was starting to happen.”
He also didn’t want to go to prison, and didn’t want to stop painting. So he turned to a more sophisticated form of street art that moved beyond graffiti.
Eine came across, and was impressed by, the work of artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey.
“People were doing way more interesting things than graffiti with a lot more thought,” he said. “It was people making stuff in their studio for a site-specific place in the streets, and then going out and executing it.”
ARTIST BEN EINE works to prepare for painting the wall above and around the entrance to Middlebury College’s Museum of Art last Thursday morning. Eine completed two original on-site pieces for the museum’s new show, “Outside In: Art of the Street,” which opens Feb. 13 and runs through April 19.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Eine began to create street art — a term he said doesn’t convey the complexity and depth of the movement — on his own. By coincidence, he began to collaborate with Banksy, a fellow English artist who is among the best-known purveyors of street art in the world.
“We bumped into each other at a pub,” Eine recalled. “I knew who he was, he knew who I was … I said, ‘I’d be glad to help you do stuff if I could help.’”
Eine and Banksy collaborated for several years, and Eine later worked with other prominent street artists like Faile and Bäst.
“Everybody that came to London, we’d hang out with,” he said. “It was way more exciting than the graffiti was, and I was still painting passive things illegally and not getting arrested.”
His commercial appeal skyrocketed in 2010, when British Prime Minister David Cameron gave President Barack Obama a painting by Eine called “Twenty First Century City” on Cameron’s first state visit to Washington, D.C. Eine has presented his work at galleries in the U.S., England, Denmark and Sweden.
On a trip to Los Angeles three years ago, Eine met an attorney named Carrie Richey, who would later become his wife. He still lived in London, but said the decision to immigrate to the U.S. wasn’t difficult.
“I set up a studio anywhere and make art, and I said (to her), ‘I hear the weather is better in California (than England),” he explained. The couple now lives in San Francisco.
Since he is not tethered to an office or nine-to-five job, Eine is free to travel and said he’ll take up any opportunity to do so. So when Tom Horne, a Denver gallery owner, said that Middlebury College had asked him to find a street artist to paint a mural for its new exhibit, Eine immediately agreed. That he didn’t know much about the region was no matter.
“Originally I thought Vermont was in Canada, and then I thought it was a city,” he confessed. “It wasn’t until I was in the taxi going to the airport the driver asked where I was going and then said, ‘Oh, Vermont. That’s a beautiful state.’”
But wouldn’t it seem disingenuous if a renowned street artist, dedicated to a movement that removes economic barriers to art, presented his work at a private liberal-arts college in New England? Eine scoffed at the notion.
“See, everybody says that!” he exclaimed. “I sell paintings for up to $20,000. I make a luxury product that not many people can afford to buy. This is the ideal place to show my art. I also have this weird fascination with painting things on the street, which I enjoy and it’s fun, more like a hobby.”
As someone who supports himself through his artwork alone, he said museums like Middlebury’s are a place where he can introduce his work to people who may be interested in buying it. In other words, he doesn’t see commercial success and critical acclaim as mutually exclusive.
“From a career perspective, and an audience perspective, this is the most ideal place to put my work,” he said. “Just because we paint stuff in the street doesn’t mean we’re cheeky little urchins, stealing our spray paint. We’re vaguely successful artists.”
Eine said he’s eager to show his work in museums because that is the only way to preserve his art.
“As artists we’re kind of egomaniacs to a degree,” he said. “The dream is to have your art exhibited way after you die. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the things I’ve created on the street no longer exists.”
He said that despite his success, he does not seek out fame and shies away from making public appearances he’s not obligated to go to. Even the ones he has to attend are a drag.
“It’s a nightmare being photographed at an opening I don’t give a shit about,” he said. “I’d rather be in my studio painting.”
As for interrupting his art to talk to a reporter, he said he is glad to take the time, because he sees giving interviews as a way to promote street art as a whole.
“It’s good for the movement, more than promoting me,” Eine said. “I’m happy to talk about all the art and not even mention my name.”
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