Between tokes on a cigarette and phone calls, street artist Ben Eine wields cans of spray paint that transform walls into vibrant murals of typography across London, Dubai and New York.
Amid last Friday’s heat wave, Eine finished up the second of two murals he created for Laguna Beach. The highly visible paintings – one says “Wonder” and the other “Charming” – are on private property, created in a carnival-style font that injects levity and humor into the city’s public art collection.
“I’ve done it because I love it,” Eine, 45, said of the wall-sized canvases he created.
While the England-born artist now lives and generally works on gallery-sized canvases from a studio in San Francisco, he yearns to travel and return to the do-it-yourself ethos of street art where his projects are self-funded. “The challenge is more fun,” he said.
Eine said he discovered Laguna’s beauty while here for a stay in a rehab facility last September. “It’s a great place to stay sober,” he said. Friend Adam Casper, who relocated to Laguna a year ago from New York, helps Eine procure the permission from property owners to repurpose empty walls into the canvases he covets.
“We feel like this is ground zero,” said Casper, who first obtained approval from the apartment where he lives for “Charming” and now intends to keep scouting for likely mural locations for Eine between San Diego and Los Angeles.
One of the next may be in Rancho Santa Margarita. Casper befriended local Michael Ray, who’s joined the cause and says he’s working on obtaining permission for an Eine mural on a Tillys building.
“In rundown neighborhoods they want you to paint; in affluent neighborhoods, they’re not as keen,” said Eine, who concedes he foregoes obtaining often-required permits due to the time necessary to obtain them. “It’s not anything offensive; it’s bright and happy and adds something to the community,” he said of his work.
Even so, Eine concedes city officials could conclude his murals were unpermitted and demand their removal. “Fine. Paint it over,” he said dismissively.
In fact, a code enforcement case was opened this week over the Eine murals, said Ann Larson, assistant director of community development in Laguna. The property owners will be asked to apply for permits, as required under the city municipal code, she said.
Typically painting permits are approved over-the-counter without the need for a Design Review Board hearing or Arts Commission review if there are no complaints from neighbors, who are noticed about the permit application, said Larson. And other murals have been approved retroactively. “This does happen. Sometimes people don’t know you need approval,” she said. “I would think our community would be excited,” Larson added.
Locals artists Jorg Dubin and Muffin Devlin agree, and are new Eine fans. “For my money, it fits in,” said Devlin, a glass blower, who thinks the city should bend its rules and accept the work as Eine offered it, as a gift.
“I support it 100% and the fact that it was just done without permission makes it even better!” said Dubin, a painter, who has disagreed more than once with the town’s appointed Art Commission.
Some 20 years ago, witnessing subway train art transformed Eine’s perspective about his first love for graffiti, whose name tagging carried little meaning beyond bragging rights. “I couldn’t believe these amazing paintings on entire carriages,” said Eine. “It’s the last place in the world a piece of art should be.”
That experience, along with arrests for graffiti vandalism that threatened to curtail his freedom, pushed Eine into the underground street art movement of contemporary street artists Banksy and Shephard Fairey. Rather than the destructiveness of graffiti writers, he sees street artists as engaging in an intelligent, more acceptable, constructive and even comical form of graffiti.
With the goal of making more readable and happier art, Eine turned for
inspiration to hand-carved wooden printing blocks and old-style fonts. Without formal art training, Eine left school at 16. Today, he updates vintage type styles by drawing them on a computer, redrawing them on a paper stencil, cutting them out with a surgeon’s scalpel, and then spray painting the lettering on canvas. The water-based aerosol paint by MTN is specially formulated for graffiti artists.
“It takes some skill, but it’s more to do with passion,” Eine said.
Last week, Eine furiously sprayed from a palette of 200 colors through stenciled cutouts onto small canvases on a friend’s patio. The makeshift studio allowed him to prepare work for a gallery show in London in the morning while he finished “Wonder” that afternoon. Art students served as assistants at the mural, spraying background patterns through stencils around Eine’s letters, composed freestyle on location.
Eine remains tickled over an unexpected request for one of his works in 2010 for a gift exchange between Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron and U.S. President Barack Obama.
The artist figures serendipity played a role. A year before, his designs were tapped by handbag designer Anya Hindmarch, a friend of the prime minister’s wife, Samantha Cameron. And a Guardian newspaper feature on Alphabet Street, now celebrated for Eine’s 26 letters ringing the block, preceded the phone call.
Eine figured Obama would appreciate his work since as a candidate he tapped street artist Shepard Fairey’s work in a campaign poster. “I thought Obama might be into it instead of an old painting of the queen,” he said. He doesn’t know if his work, “Twenty First Century City,” hangs in the White House.
Compared to when he started making street art, Eine says street artists have found broader acceptance by established galleries that have come to recognize demand exists for their work. Eine says he turns down more shows than he accepts in part because of his wanderlust.
“We’re going to change the world,” Casper said.
“At least this little corner,” Eine added.
Here’s another example in Dana Point of artists sidestepping permitting