DesignInc: American Graffiti

21 November 2010 - 02:00 By Craig Jacobs

Street art has made its way to the White House, writes Craig Jacobs

Most graffiti artists spray their messages on public buildings under the cover of darkness. Ben Eine on the other hand, can lay claim to the fact that his spray- painted message hangs in the White House. While he has about seven convictions for criminal damage for previous illegal painting gigs, this time the British street artist was actually commissioned to create the work Twenty First Century City (the one that hangs in Barack Obama's "office"), by the British Prime Minister, David Cameron.

"It is a strange feeling to think the most powerful man in the world looks at my painting over breakfast every morning. I hope it inspires good," says the 39-year old Londoner. He hasn't lifted the price of his paintings since his global claim to fame - you can still buy the same image as Obama's in different colours for just £2500 a pop.

Eine and another Londoner, Banksy (an unidentified artist whose satirical works have a global following), are at the forefront of what is termed street art, a movement that includes graffiti as well as other styles which, rather than being commissioned by government, are unsanctioned and appear unexpectedly in public areas.

While his Obama work might be the most famous in Eine's burgeoning portfolio of commissions, this street artist can list his biggest work to date as being in Stellenbosch, outside Cape Town.

Eine's presidential commission caught the eye of Bernard Fontannaz, the managing director of Origin Wine (the home of two of SA's most successful export wines, Stormhoek and Fairhills), and he immediately sent an e-mail to the British artist.

"I've always liked graffiti or street art as they call it," says Fontannaz, whose company owns cellars in South Africa, Argentina and Chile. "(Eine's work) is bold, it is funky. And, like our wine, graffiti and street art, is available to everybody."

Eine, who specialises in creating huge letters on shop fronts across London liked the fact that Origin's Fairhills wine happens to be the biggest fair-trade brand in the world (Fairtrade is a worldwide organisation helping marginalised producers in developing countries to move towards sustainable economic self-sufficiency and stability).

"I was impressed with their work and how much they put back into the community," says Eine, adding: "Plus, I've never been to Cape Town before."

Eine didn't quite understand how massive the project was of painting the five tanks, which store the finished wine before it is bottled.

"One of the biggest challenges was finding the right words to write that fitted within the 50 spaces I had on the towers," says Eine.

Unlike straight shop shutters, the towers are round so, to spray a circle on a curved surface nine metres high was a challenge. But the result pops out against the blue Stellenbosch sky, a riot of Technicolor stripes emblazoned with letters that form the words "fair, spontaneous, passionate, change the world, and celebrate" - a phrase which Eine felt embodied exactly what he represents as an artist and also the philosophy of the wine company.

Born Ben Flynn, the son of a taxi driver, he fell into the graffiti world in the 1980s, heading up a teenage graffiti gang and coming up with the name "Eine", which means "one" in German as his signature.

He left home and school at 16 (claiming in a London Evening Standard article that he did so because he couldn't put his parents through the frequent visits by the police) and got a job as a clerk at insurer's Lloyds of London. During lunch time and at night he took to the streets with his spray paints. He was arrested 15 times and fined about seven times.

He quit his job 10 years ago, just as street art started taking off and it is around this time that Eine met Banksy. Banksy is the street stenciller and painter whose identity is known to a select few and whose works include a mock British £10 note with the Queen's head switched for that of Princess Diana; and prints of Queen Victoria as a lesbian, one of which was bought by Christina Aguilera for £25000.

Together, the two have helped change the perception of street art, holding exhibitions from Denmark to New York.

"We both enjoy painting, and painting stuff outside is what we do. We have been lucky that, for the last 10 years, people have cared about what we do," says Eine.

He says he still sometimes paints without permission. These days, though, commissions such as Origin Wine are becoming more frequent.

"Of course the more mainstream and commercial anything becomes, the less exciting it becomes," he says. "That is one of the challenges we as street artists face. I've seen this happen with graffiti. The difference with street art is it's far readier to evolve and change to stay fresh."