Firstly we spoke about where Ben used to live when he was living and working in Brighton, and what he did to pay the bills while he was trying to get his career up and running:
Firstly we spoke about where Ben used to live when he was living and working in Brighton, and what he did to pay the bills while he was trying to get his career up and running:
“At first it was lewes road student houses then I lived with a girl in Hanover. A few of the kids bought houses around there, they were so cheap when I first got there in 97. Being at art college it was all about the north Laine. It was where creativity and retail met and I hung out all day working in shops like Infinity Foods, Dirty Harry, Pussy and Starfish. I then lived in Kemptown off St James Street for a few years and that became my new hangout. After my printmaking degree at Brighton uni ended In 2000 I worked in a few of the bars and restaurants mostly the Tin drum, the Sidewinder, the Brighton Rock and the Blue Parrot doing cocktails.
Kemptown was rammed with other creatives working in bars and living in cheap bedsits and mini flats, but in nice old regency houses. Everyone was working on something whether it was bands, their art and photography, fashion portfolios, or singers, writers, poets and actors. And some just loved service like some of the serious cocktail bartenders who were in Brighton to become the best. It was a fertile atmosphere for figuring out how to do your creative thing full time.
Then I got a job with a teeshirt screen-printing house behind London road on Providence Place called Upfront, more commonly known as the Bob Shop because they had imported the Bob Dobbs Church of the Subgenious and were taking its merchandising to a whole new level. They were at the heart of the Brighton creative machine.
I had had enough of bars and I threw myself into it full time absolutely relishing doing my creative thing all day and all night. Around the same time I fell in love with a vintage selling stylist for the stars and got my own studio that was a derelict pub on North Street. I soon moved into it like a squat and stayed there and made it into a studio live in shop. It was pretty bizarre. I was in my element. Working at upfront and being around all this music and art was so powerful. I was printing with artists Hutch and Dan Johnson there were posters and historic stencil art by banksy and pablo fiascos amazing typewriter on the walls. Artists like Plastic Bob and Dotmasters came and hung out while we worked printing shirts for half the shops in the North-Laine. I was looking for a new way to make images and it was in that moment I satiated my boredom with a new teeshirt brand of my own. On one side of my studio was the Hare Krishna food and prayer pop up shop and on the other was Rare Kind, a shop that sold records and graffiti art and customised clothing and kicks.
I learned about all the graff writers in the area and the stories about them. Text became a thing and that’s when I started Screenprince as a teeshirt brand. I’m eternally thankful to Jimbob at Upfront (now Another Fine mesh in Lewes) for helping me and teaching me to print my own range of my calligram tee shirts. I sold a few in the North Laine in my shop/home and then in Dover Street Market the year it opened in London.
I went to live with Zoe in Hove with her two lovely girls and I saw how families lived in the Hove community. It was really nice in Hove. The streets were bigger, the rooms in houses bigger, and the community of characters was upper echelon. The stars of Brighton all lived there. I had breakfast with Nick and Suzy Cave! Chris Eubank would park his unfeasibly large lorry on the road outside Barneys. It was less fraught and everything was bigger. I soon started printing paper at upfront and we started Brighton Rock Artists’ Group there through Brighton Fringe and had American kings of gig-poster printing Chuck Sperry and Ron Donovan to lead workshops. I started printing my work and selling in Art republic on Bond St in the North Laine. A massive studio space became available above Upfront and I was straight in there with bits of second hand equipment and renting spaces out to artists like Rhys Wooten Razorshell and MNKY.
It was good times. Prints were flying out and we were just managing to pay the rents and the rates through our own work. Halfway through the lease the crash happened and rents started going up and sales began to fall. 2010 was a tough year. By then I was living illegally in my studio again developing a particularly vengeful type of epilepsy. It was also the coldest winter for ages. Homeless people were being found frozen to death. Fourteen year old students protesting about student fees at night were being rounded up in the ice and having clashes with riot police and having their names and addresses demanded illegally for their pretty impressive peaceful protest. Meanwhile my work was naturally getting bigger and bigger and more complex and everything started getting tougher.
Great things happened too I got a commission through Art Republic for Jay Z and I had the gift of being able to meet Grace Jones and give her my print of her. Through a friend I got word that Prince had been given my Joni Mitchell print and had it up in one of his houses.
There was a strange sense of things going really well, but everything’s collapsing around you at the same time. All the artists were struggling to keep things going, working harder, longer hours to tenaciously hold on to what we had painstakingly put together. In 2011 I moved studio to Blackman Street / Cheapside next to the MOT garage. That was a tough time, again threaded with golden moments. I got asked to do a piece for the new Doc Martens shop in the South Laines. Fat oh slim used my Donna Summer print for the cover of his single and in his shows which featured one of the biggest 3D screens In the world at that time. I made friends with Frederic Yonnet who was playing harmonica for Prince and got asked to do some work for him and he visited the studio all the way from Washington DC filming his documentary. I was showing more and more originals at Inked gallery on North Road. I shared the studio with Sarah Dearing of Juliet Costumes and Noki House of Sustainability where they made their textile magic while I spread my wings and started really getting into doing originals.
It was much cleaner and more expensive yet and by 2012 the rents were crippling. The two year build up to having the olympics in London while the collapse of the middle classes and the poor were in free fall and a sense of anger was building. Around the start of the Olympics we got loads of homeless people from London saying police had given them £20 to get the f*#k out of London and stay out. We had an influx on top of the rising homeless that were already there, it started becoming quite dangerous. Fights were breaking out everywhere, austerity was forcing food banks to appear, and the rift between the rich and poor suddenly became horribly clear where once the thriving artist community had bridged that gap or at least made it less obvious. The relentless gentrification and the careless attitude towards the poor (and the creatives were all poor) spread to Brighton like a strange disease.
The anger was building as more and more friends left Brighton. It felt like the heart of this once beautifully humble and playful city had grown into a coked up property developer smashing up the creative community that had thrived when there was more time to be creative and less time running around panicking about paying rent or millionaire customers trying to get stuff for free.
The extortionate parking fees made less people visit and soon it was feeling a bit like a sad bubble that had great memories and was now only for the rich who were cashing in on the reputation that it’s creative community had given it worldwide. When the lease came up on a place in Hastings I decided to take it and get out of Brighton after 18 years. Hastings was lovely sometimes and has a great artist community it was cheaper but something still wasn’t right. By now my epilepsy seemed to be mutating into a life threatening monster and I let all my stuff go and moved back to Lincolnshire where I went to school and college before I went to Brighton in 97. I had left wanting the big city and I returned a burnt out anxious epileptic that needed help. I no longer had family there but a few great old friends. I began a new drug programme for the seizures after one seizure very nearly killed me. It is a simple life here and I see things completely differently after my grand adventure in Brighton. I don’t have a studio, I work from home my overheads are minimal, no one would believe me in Brighton. I am connected to the greater world because of it. One day if I’m very comfortable I will return. I adore the Sussex countryside too. I nearly decided to move back last year but I find it an impossible feat to remain creative trying to live in one of the most expensive places in the country. It has such an allure it’s so mesmerising and stimulating it’s always a temptation to start planning my return. But almost two years with no seizures is such a gift and so strengthening I will only give that up if it’s a dead cert. I will always love Brighton, and Brighton showed me a lot of love too. Perfect moments can happen there. And dark moments too.”
Ben’s Brighton story illuminates a culture past, like silhouettes on a lake, visible upon reflection in moments of calm, Ben’s experiences offer us a glimpse into the rear-view mirror. I asked Ben to offer some advice or words of encouragement to other artists trying to make their way in present Brighton:
“To other artists living and working there I would say band together. Help each other. Take a few risks but keep it real and create spaces, if you can, to work somewhere on your art. Don’t be dependant on one outlet. Work in service industry it’s where a lot of the dedicated artists are subsidising their creative work. Support each other and see yourselves as brothers and sisters with the same goal not as competition or rivals. It is a beautiful thing to spend every day being a creator and it can be tough getting there. It doesn’t happen straight away. If you’re at art college try and get a sense of the business of art for when you leave and you’re just another artist trying to make it. Don’t let people who gave up their dreams talk you out of pursuing yours. Don’t be afraid to leave either. The Brighton bubble isn’t all there is. Brighton is a beautiful place. It’s like no other. Cherish it, bring kindness to it and be careful too because it wants all your money. All the time. Eat and sleep and look after yourself. The name of the game is sustainability, longevity, and creativity, not exhaustion, malnutrition and an early grave. Network and meet each other and be strong together.”
Finally I asked Ben to delve into his memory of the city and some and offer up some of his most vivid images of Brighton
- The level on a hot evening with fire-twirlers and people practicing tightrope and the smell of skunk in the air.
- The fourteen year olds protesting in the snow and ice being rounded up like terrorists.
- Swimming in the sea on a choppy October morning sunrise after an ayahuasca ceremony when the sea was warm.
- Looking out of my window off St James street on gay pride absolutely ringing with drums and music and rainbow flags and glitter.
- Sunset by the West Pier and the huge murmur of starlings doing its thing like a show in front of this sea of orange with the smell of barbecues on the air.
- The building I worked in on Providence Place being demolished.
- Halloween 2006 at the gig we organised at the Dome Club . It was the freakiest darkest rock fest ever in gothic brick arches pin the seafront.
- The pavilion lit up at night with ice skating people in the garden.
- Christmas shopping in the North Laine all lit up and people rushing around on Christmas Eve with the lights everywhere.
Brighton seafront at that big beach boutique that got out of control. I’ve never seen so many people.
- Waking up in the gutter on Providence Place and seeing my blood going into the drain and my friend waving at me down the road and looking up the side of the immense St Bartholemews church.
- Dancing hard to reggae and ska at the Villa Tavern and the curling raining condensation inside, it really was like it was raining indoors!
I asked Ben if Brighton still figures in his ongoing work, even though he has now left the City and moved to Lincolnshire:
“I guess music, the language of living in Brighton, seeped into my work. When I was meeting people and socialising it was always music and artists faces that surrounded me. The printmaking history of Brighton goes way back. I always saw it as a San Francisco kind of place. It was hard not to be a pop artist there. It’s a melting pot too. I hadn’t seen any calligram art before I made my first one apart from a really old Islamic tiger. I was doing rubbings of sidewalks signs and drain covers on calico and stretching them then painting into them and around them just before I realised I was becoming fixated with the dichotomy between text and pictures and the two halves of the brain that handle them. I surrendered to the iconic and to my own pop fantasies.
Brighton has a great sense of colour. A painter that I have realised I was never that far away from was Becky Blair. She has a lovely sense of colour In the same way. Her paintings are a lot like how I remember Brighton. I love colour. I need it around me. Rich and varied colour. Subtler colours and harmonies. Artists like Simon Dixon and and the work of Larry Smart and Alex Binnie was around me and all the graffiti and stencil art all smashed together inside me and created Screenprince. The Andy Warhol of calligram. Text and image become one like a song being sung. “
After his long and thoughtful reflections on what it was like to live and work as an Artist in Brighton at the turn of the Millennium, I wondered what it was exactly that had brought Ben to the seaside city. Of course, the stories that he had already told me were a guide toward his answer, but Ben would not have known wha the future held for him. I was interested in what his idea of Brighton was before he decided to make the move, how this idea was born and how it held up to the reality of his experiences:
“I was born in Spain, then when I was 3 my Mother and my two brothers and two sisters moved to Seaford in Sussex. Brighton was where we came for Christmas shopping or when my Spanish Father visited once or twice a year and took us shopping and to the cinema and then dinner. It was always happy times there. The punks in the early 80’s used to congregate round the old concrete Churchill square. They used to fascinate me and scare me at the same time but they were always dead friendly, which used to fascinate me even more. There were black people there and Indian and Chinese restaurants. It seemed to have a bit of the whole world there. It was where I saw my first movie (Fantasia) at the odeon. Where I cried in E.T and felt terrified in Jaws . It was where I first tried a lamb tagine, sushi, Chinese food, fish and chips, saw my first zeppelin and speed boat.
Then in 1987 when I was 10 me my mum and my sister moved to Lincolnshire and my mum bought a little cottage and became a full time artist for a while. She raved about the light and the sceneries she was painting with palette knives. I loved the country but missed home for a long time. Art was always my leading subject followed by English and performing arts. I began visiting my sister and my Father in Madrid and San Sebastián and I loved it. Multicultural international places always light me up, and Lincolnshire doesn’t feel remotely international. It’s the shire in Lord of the Rings, it’s deep in the heart of an England that doesn’t change. Even technology doesn’t change it. But it is beautiful. It has a different way of lighting me up.
My sister started college at Mountview drama school in London and I had a brother still in Seaford. As a teenager I’d visit them both and draw postcards of Andy Warhol and Prince in pastels enlarged on cardboard for money like a busker. I sold a piece in Brighton (I was in the passage down the side of what is now Clarkes on Bond St) and a piece in London. It was big for me, just a 16 year olds kid in Lincolnshire. I went to do my foundation in Grimsby and I really wanted to go to St Martins in London and my second choice was Brighton. I really wanted to move straight to London. My interview for St Martens went really well. I didn’t get in. My interview for Brighton went terribly. I was late, sweaty, I argued with the tutors and I wrote it straight off. But I got in. I decided I was going to take a year out and re-apply and then after the course started I suddenly realised what an opportunity this was. I started the course late and stayed on my friend from Grimsby’s floor in the student accommodation blocks out near Sussex uni. I realised that the course I had applied for was something completely different and they tried to throw me off but my tutors wife taught on printmaking and thought I’d be perfect for the course. I went straight into the second year by the skin of my teeth and ended up getting a two-one. Brighton was even more up my street than London, which was less than an hour away. It had the sea. It had sun and fun and a certain optimism that motivated me for years.”
I found Ben’s experiences of Brighton very illuminating and his honesty immensely touching. I felt that, through our correspondence, I was being offered a window into the Brighton that Ben knew, a Brighton full of enthusiasm, a Brighton with a frontier spirit, boldly breaking ground, building on the the work and lives of residents past to add yet more texture and depth to the complex tapestry. His experiences were a blend of joy and frustration, excitement and anger, experiences which I am sure will ring true with the residents currently residing in the city. His story of rising costs of living, the ceaseless march of never-ending property development, and and growing divide between the rich and poor are still very close to the heart of contemporary Brighton life, and depending on how you look at it, offer a frame bound to inevitability and stagnation, or conversely, offer a companionship across space and time, a consoling hand to those going through tough times, and a touching message of assurance that you are not alone.