Entertainment & Arts

A painting for the President

Twentyfirst Century City, by Ben Eine
Image caption Twentyfirst Century City was given to President Obama by David Cameron

The call from Number 10 to artist Ben Eine came out of the blue.

Would he be interested in David Cameron having one of his paintings to pass on as a gift to the most powerful man in the world?

"My first thought was 'wow, Ronald MacDonald is going to have one of my paintings - amazing!"

Eine, whose perky typography has been popping up across London for a number of years, chuckles at the memory of how his professional life has been turned on its head.

To date, his highest profile work has been a collaboration with handbag designer Anya Hindmarch, and spray painting the entire alphabet on the shop shutters of a street in Spitalfields in his signature ice-cream palette.

Now, his work has made its way to Washington DC and the walls of the White House.

It's a long way for the south London-born street artist who started out because he "wanted to be part of that hooded track suit gang thing".

"I was just completely shocked, yeah, just completely shocked and completely amazed to get that call," admits the 39-year-old.

"I'm not a massive artist by any stretch of the imagination. Yes, I've been in papers and magazines, but you never have any idea if anyone actually reads it or pays any attention.

"So, to receive a phone call from Number 10 saying they like your work, they want a piece of your work, and they want to give it to President Obama, it's like this can't be happening, this can't be true, it's just too weird."

But it was true and, this week, Cameron handed the £2,500 canvas - entitled Twentyfirst Century City - to President Obama, along with scented candles for his wife and two pairs of candy-coloured wellies for the kids.

"I had a little think about it before I said 'Yes'," admits Eine, who has gradually been making a name for himself on the street-art scene.

"I assessed the pros and the cons, and I went back to them and said 'Yeah, cool, what are you interested in?'"

The 'cons' in this case were Eine's fear he would be branded a sell-out by his peers, or that the painting would be left in bubble wrap and abandoned in a darkened room in the White House.

The 'pros' were summed up with the name of one artist - Shepherd Fairey.

Fairey's now famous Hope poster, a stencil portrait of Obama in red, white and blue, became an iconic symbol during the 2008 presidential campaign.

"I wasn't prepared to give them something I felt wasn't going to be looked at and appreciated," says Eine.

"But Obama used the poster by Shepard Fairey - probably the most famous street artist besides Banksy - so it was clear to me he has an idea and an appreciation of street art.

Image caption Shepard Fairey's iconic image of Obama raised the artist's profile across the globe

"So the fact that I'm comfortable it's going to go up on a wall somewhere was a 'Yes', and the fact it was going to Obama - and he is a dude - was a 'Yes' too.

"If it had been going to one of the old presidents, then I probably would have said no."

The three feet by two feet canvas was chosen by Cameron's political aides from a selection suggested by Eine.

He describes his typography-based work as "negative words painted in a beautiful and a happy way" and admits he was pushed to find something suitable at first.

"Because of the time frame, it had to be something I had already painted, so there wasn't a massive amount they could choose from," he said. "They couldn't exactly give him a painting that said 'monsters' or 'delinquents'.

"I e-mailed some images that I had and at the last minute, I remembered about a painting I had in a gallery in Brighton, so I sent them a picture of Twentyfirst Century City.

"They came back immediately and said 'Yeah, we love it, Can we have it?' And I was like 'Yeah... that's cool'."

Now Eine is hoping to get some feedback from Downing Street on what Obama thought of his work.

"Hopefully I'll get a photo of the handover with the two of them standing there with their cheesy grins and their thumbs up," he laughs. "I'd put that on my wall - my 15 minutes of Andy Warhol fame.

"It's a bit of a fairytale story for me, really, one that will hopefully have a happy ending."

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