The message of “Brighter Faster” displayed on the wall behind the Proxy Project (432 Octavia) is almost synonymous with the interim-use space. Given the recent renaissance Hayes Valley is experiencing, these sky blue letters and the message they convey serve as a fitting note for our transitional neighborhood.
If you walk down Octavia towards Market, you’ll see more letters in that circus-marquee font. This piece situated at the corner of Page and Octavia spells out “Great Adventure.”
These two painting are part of an ever-growing worldwide collection of messages of positivity by UK-based street artist Ben Eine.
In the world of street art, Ben is as prolific as artists come. His street-based work is found globally from Beijing and Tokyo to New York and Mexico City. Ben — and sometimes his pal Banksy — search for an urban environment that’s just begging for a little pizzazz.
For the untrained eye, the difference between graffiti and street art can be about ambiguous as it gets. Most artists and fans classify street art as constructive and graffiti as destructive to its surroundings.
Before Ben had found his niche in the street art scene, he was just some punk painting trains in the UK.
“I tagged shit for years,” Ben told us candidly. “Painted trains for years, but I got tired of graffiti. I was going to get sent to prison, so I decided to legalize my graffiti so it wasn’t exactly graffiti.”
He started by exploring his fascination with calligraphy — particularly Germanic fonts. According to Ben, he was largely entranced by the style from a rather old bible that a friend had given to him as a present.
“I started painting roller shutters [of shops and bodegas] random letters and numbers on them,” he said. “I was just random tagging them. You never see my name. It made it not graffiti, so it allowed me to paint and not get arrested.”
Now, his letters and numbers are seen on roller shutters throughout blocks of Middlesex Street in London. It’s because of this abundance of his work that Middlesex was nicknamed “Alphabet Street.”
As the street art phenomenon began to gain traction and the attention of art enthusiasts, Ben’s positive messages started symbolizing gentrification.
“When I come to neighborhoods and tag buildings with my style, people say, ‘It’s the beginning of the gentrification process,’” he told us. “I made a street look completely different. It went from looking like shit to looking interesting.”
It’s this fame that undoubtedly caught the attention of British Prime Minister David Cameron, who gave President Obama one of Ben’s works as a gift for his first official state visit in 2010.
When we asked Ben how it felt to receive this high honor, he replied simply: “Dude, I went to Downing Street and met the fucking prime minister.”
Going from a delinquent under the law to a celebrated artist was something that Ben never comprehended when he started tagging trains all those years ago.
“I’m just like this graffiti kid who rang the doorbell to Downing Street and had lunch with the Prime Minister,” he said animatedly. “It was surreal. You know, I broke the law most of my life and then I wound up at 10 Downing Street. I never went to arts school, I just vandalized stuffed and fucked around and somehow I wound up here.”
In 2011, Ben wanted to make a splash in SF for an upcoming solo show at the White Walls Gallery (886 Geary), so the gallery scoured SF to find walls for him to tag. They ended up finding the Octavia side of the building on Page Street.
“So this is before the Biergarten and the other shit that happened [in Hayes Valley],” he noted. “At the time it was a fucking car park, so he spoke to the guys who owned the Octavia building and they were like, ‘Yeah, cool, paint it.’”
Ben paid for the scaffolding and the spray paint. He even paid $800 to get insurance.
When it came time to paint, Ben already had a concept in mind.
“Well, I travel a lot and my life is like a great adventure. Also, there’s a Biggie Smalls song called ‘Kick the Doors.’ In this song, he says, ‘I got more rhymes than great adventure.’ I thought that was pretty sick.”
It seems that Biggie made an impact on Ben, because he’s written the rap lyric in a handful of places throughout the world. Each location has a different font.
“I’ve written it in Beijing, Tokyo, Copenhagen, London and a few other places,” he explained. “Everyone takes something completely different from great adventure and not a single person has come forward and said, ‘Sick, Biggie Smalls!”
Unlike “Great Adventure,” his work for “Brighter Faster” is the only one of its kind. According to Ben, “Brighter Faster” wasn’t intended to be a reflection of the neighborhood, “it just worked out like that.”
Unfortunately, this upbeat fresco’s days in the sun are numbered. As we reported in March, it will soon be sealed away forever behind a new construction project.
Like most street art, the mural is meant to have a limited duration in the world.
“One of the exciting things about what we do is the street is our art gallery,” he said. “If you’re walking or cycling to work and turn a corner to see a painting of two policeman kissing each other; then two days later it’s gone. It’s exciting and it’s fun. It’s not meant to be there forever.”
That isn’t to say his work won’t be popping up to a city near you in the future. Ben is actually currently living in San Francisco since he moved here in 2012. Among his current projects, he’s preparing for a solo show at Corey Helford Gallery on June 18th, not to mention the debut of a scarf he designed for Louis Vuitton.
Check out Ben’s website for his latest projects and a catalog of his recent work.