UPDATE: 12/8/17: A reader by the name of William Bulkley wrote in to offer an alternative version of events. SF Weekly has reached out to Ben Eine several times, but we have not received a response. Bulkley’s email is found, in full, below.
It’s Ben Eine’s lettering — its style, its shapes, its colors — that has made him an international name in the art world. When a neighborhood gets an Eine letter (or letters) on its walls, it’s a sign that the neighborhood is changing — usually for better, since Eine’s work is now widely in demand in the way that Banksy (a fellow Briton and longtime Eine friend) is in demand. Sight unseen, art patrons will pay tens of thousands of dollars for an original Eine work — which is why Great Adventure, which he painted in 2011, is such an aberration.
Eine, whose background is in graffiti and street art, paid to do the work himself on the wall of a Victorian home. And he was so eager to have people look at Great Adventure that he hyphenated the words in an odd way. It’s not “Great Adven-ture” but “Great Adve-nture.” The unusual word break forces people to do a double-take.
Eine put up Great Adventure after a monthlong visit to San Francisco for his then-exhibit at White Walls gallery. Eine has put up similar Great Adventure word paintings — in different fonts — in Beijing, Osaka, Copenhagen, and other cities around the world. His Octavia Boulevard rendition came a year after British Prime Minister David Cameron gave Pres. Barack Obama a Ben Eine painting called Twenty First Century City.
“It was my first time to San Francisco, so I wasn’t known then — and it was hard to approach people and ask for sponsorship or funding,” Eine tells SF Weekly in a phone interview from London, where he lives. “I was coming back to San Francisco, and this woman approached me — randomly, on email — and said, ‘Oh my God – I love your painting. I’ve got this house; would you like to paint the side of my house?’ But she didn’t have any money to pay for it.” [Note: Bulkley’s dispute with Eine’s account hinges on this point.]
Eine, who took the words from rapper Biggie Smalls’ song “Kick in the Door,” decided on the hyphenation because “if you ever watch people in art galleries or museums looking at art, they generally spend about three seconds looking at it — so if you can make them spend a little bit longer than three seconds looking at your painting, you’ve [grabbed] more people in that museum. By breaking up the words, it’s hard to read — so you actually have to stare at it and make out what it says.”
“It also,” Eine says of the two words, “wouldn’t fit on the wall in any other way.”
After putting up Great Adventure, Eine met a woman in San Francisco, married her, had a daughter, and moved here for three-and-a-half years in a house they bought together — but when Eine applied for a green card to live and work permanently in the United States, U.S. authorities denied his application because he failed to note two previous arrests for small amounts of marijuana possession in London, he says. Eine moved back to London in 2015 — a week after his application was rejected.
“I got arrested twice for possession of personal amounts of cannabis in London, and I never admitted that when I went to America and filled out [forms] and all that stuff, so they denied my application,” says Eine, whose marriage also broke up, noting that he and his former partner “have gotten on pretty well in the last year.
“And weirdly, I’ve just bought her and my daughter flights to London, and they’re going to come and stay with me for two weeks,” he adds. “And I saw her a couple of months ago in Mexico. Whenever I get a job that’s somewhere around America, I fly over my ex-wife and daughter and hang out with them.”
So Eine’s familial globe-hopping is his own great adventure. Eine, 47, is inspired by old fonts and typography from the 18th century. But it was Cameron’s 2010 White House gift to Obama that helped put Eine on the art-world map. Obama reciprocated by giving Cameron a work by Ed Ruscha, whose word-based art has been celebrated for decades and sells for millions of dollars.
“I just think Obama had a bigger budget than David Cameron,” Eine says. “We’re a little poor country. We’re irrelevant nowadays. You’re a superpower!”
The text of William Bulkley’s email is below.
I read with amazement Mr. Curiel’s article “The ‘Great Adve-nture’ Mural on Octavia Is Tied Up in International Politics.” While Mr. Curiel is to be commended for reaching out to the artist Ben Eine for comment on the mural, we must assume Mr. Eine has inhaled too many spray paint fumes as his recollection of how this mural was organized is completely wrong. Here is how it really happened:
In 2010, my then boyfriend, now husband, the photographer Gareth Gooch, was visiting London, his hometown. While at a gallery exhibiting Eine’s work, he happened to meet Eine’s manager who mentioned they were going soon to San Francisco for Eine’s White Walls Gallery show. Gooch was, at the time, documenting street art in London and San Francisco and so they struck up an agreement whereby Gooch would photograph Eine’s work in progress in San Francisco. At the same time he would try to procure permissions for large walls on which Eine would paint murals.
At that time I was on the board of the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association and co-chair of its Art, Culture, and Entertainment (ACE) Committee. Under HVNA’s art enrichment goals, Gooch landed several walls in Hayes Valley including the ones for ‘Great Adventure’ and the iconic ‘ Brighter Faster.’ This later work was Eine’s largest painting to date, and dominated Patricia’s Green in Hayes Valley for many years. Gooch also arranged and documented several other walls for Eine in other neighborhoods in S.F.
For ‘Great Adventure,’ Gooch and I knocked on the door of the Page Street house and talked to the owners who we knew were HVNA members. This meeting lead to a second in which Gooch and Eine met with the owners and discussed details including the typical subject matter, materials payment, insurance, access, etc. which was all to be provided by White Walls Gallery since this was, in a sense, a promotion of the gallery show there. At this meeting it was revealed that the owners and family were about to embark on a year’s travel around the world and the only stipulation they had was that the mural have an uplifting message for our community. The house was adjacent to the newly created Octavia Boulevard and the neighborhood was still feeling the growing pains from the demolition of the Central Freeway. This was the double meaning for the message ‘Great Adventure,’ both the family’s trip and the neighborhood’s transition.
SF Weekly and Mr. Curiel would be wise to make some notable corrections in their article. This mural was not a random email encounter but the concerted effort of several Hayes Valley residents including Gooch, the building owners and me; the owners did not approach Eine but were approached by us; they were never asked for money, only permission to use their wall; and while Eine is an internationally renowned artist, this “Great Adve-nture’ is hardly caught up in the intrigue of international politics. What it is is an average example of Eine’s mural work using word play and the use of public art to introduce a positive message to a community.