We caught up with one of the art world’s more expressive characters, internationally renowned master of type Ben Eine, at his train side London studio and converted vinegar factory loft talking about creativity, what Listen Better means to him and how music influences his art and life. As a letter and wordsmith, there’s no mistaking Eine’s hand, with his alphabets recognised on streets and canvases the world over.

Here is what Ben had to say,
I used to get into trouble a lot as a kid, but now I’m really interested in making the world a better place. I want people to walk down the street and see my artwork and feel happier, feel better, and not worry about the hard everyday stuff that’s weighing them down. I like to try and give them a bit of happiness. This summer I did a big street mural in Shoreditch, London for the people of the Grenfell tower fire. It was an incredible experience. I used the line “You saw it in the tears of those who survived” from Ben Okri’s poem Grenfell Tower, June, 2017 that he wrote one month after the tragedy. His words are so strong. The piece I did is a tribute, commemoration and reminder of the tragedy. A place for people to look and remember those affected, but also a piece of permanence to keep the discussion of what happened alive until the survivors and victims receive justice, to tell those affected by the tragedy that we’re still here, that we’re still listening.

When I think of the words “listen better” this is really what comes to me. We need to listen better to what’s going on in the world, especially now in these absolutely bizarre and messed up times. And we need to listen better to each other, to learn about and understand the differences of life we all experience. It’s the diversity and difference that makes the world an interesting place. Also visually. Thinking about this inspired the way I designed the Listen Better canvas. The painting uses my Vandal font and the same colour technique as I used on the TWENTYFIRSTCENTURYCITY canvas that Obama received as a gift from former UK Prime Minister David Cameron on his first official visit to Washington in 2010. I think of it as an inclusive rainbow.

How does music influence your creativity when you’re working?
I generally paint in silence at my studio because I’m easily distracted, but when I’m there prepping, or at home, I have music on all of the time. I like romantic songs, heart-breaking songs, I listen to a lot of rap, I like jumping around, I like indie rock. My music tastes are really all over the place, the last concert I went to was Dolly Parton.

I’m kind of a wordsmith so lyrics really influence what I do. I often find that lyrics from songs find their way into my work, or I hear something in a song that then gets translated into something else in a piece I’m making. I always have a notebook or sketchpad on me and I’m always writing things down. I have loads of pages filled with random stuff tucked into different places all over my house, so when I’m listening to music at home and something strikes me, I jot it down and get back to it at a later date when I’m looking through my notes for ideas.

I like the way you can play with language – a word taken out of context means certain things and then you put it in a different context and it redefines the meaning of that word. I paint these walls and everyone takes something different from what I’ve written, and no one knows where it’s come from inside of me.

As an artist, when I make art I kind of lay myself down and put myself on offer and expose something of myself. I make things that are so personal and so important to me. I put them on a wall or hang them in an art gallery and folks come down and they buy it or like it or criticise it. I’m opening up my heart to criticism and listening to music helps me get through that process. There’s not one particular song or kind of music that does it, it depends on how I get up that day.

And how do you get up? Is music part of your daily routine?
Literally every morning when I wake up at home there’s a song in my head, and I have no idea where it came from. Probably from a dream I can’t remember. It’s a really random selection, from David Grey and REM to Tupac and DMX, the strangest mix of stuff. If I can remember the song, which I usually do, I put it on at home while I’m getting ready to go to the studio or street to work or out for a meeting. That’s usually how my day starts, and then progresses from there.

It’s pretty amazing how music can set-up your day. I’m kind of weird, so there’s been times in my life where I’ve literally listened to the same song on repeat at home for months to help me get through something. Music is definitely therapeutic for me and can change the tone of my day.

Music calms me down, makes me more peaceful, but also riles you up. You know Jim Morrison studied crowd control – music is a massive part of that. It makes me think of one of the greatest song lines ever, from NWA: “You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge”. You hear that line, and you’re like “YES!”. Or something like The White Stripe’s “Seven Nation Army”. It’s a global anthem, it’s a collective feeling.

Do you also listen to music as a collective experience? You’ve said how it helps you in your creative practice and life, but what about with other people?
I actually listen to music a lot with friends when they’re around mine for dinner or a hang. We do this thing where I pick a tune, then someone else picks a tune, and then someone else. We all kind of bounce off of each other. It reminds me of that drawing game where one person draws something on a piece of paper and folds it over, then the next person adds to it and so on – exquisite corpse I think it’s called. I’ve always thought of our music game as kind of like that, each person building onto what’s already been played. The music selection is completely different depending on who is over. Two nights ago with friends it was a mix of Drake, DJ Khaled, Big Daddy Kane and EPMD. That kind of direction. Next week with a different group, or even the same group, it could be The Clash, The Sex Pistols and Joy Division. We just try to avoid disco at all costs.

It’s great where I live because I hardly have neighbours so we can listen to music loud and till 4 in the morning and no one can hear us. I love turning up Florence and The Machine’s ‘Dog Days Are Over’ on full blast.

How do you find the experience of your home changes with music on?
Other than the music influencing my mood, it definitely changes the feeling of my house. Makes it feel more full.

I’m a really visual person, so much of how I understand the world is in relation to this. I remember something an old graffiti writer friend who was also a musician I used to paint with said to me back in the day. We were talking about music and he said “making music is just like doing graffiti. You start with an outline, then fill it in.” He was talking about graffiti and outlining and layering paint as similar to the outlining and layering of sound to create music. This really struck me and I thought it was a nice analogy to understand not only how music is made, but also the way that sound can fill and change the feeling of a space.

Photography by Iris Duvekot

Also available in: en-au da de es fr it nl no sv en-gb