Celebrated street artist Ben Eine rose to prominence in East London when he turned Middlesex Street in Spitalfields into ‘Alphabet Street’ with the entire A-Z adorning the numerous independent shops’ shutters. However, it was when ex-Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha decided to gift Barack Obama one of his paintings that Eine truly became a household name.

Ben Eine: Casa Havana

His transformation from a suited and booted insurance man to convicted guerrilla graffiti writer and then to celebrated international artist seemed to happen almost overnight; his typographic images are now selling for thousands.

Ben Eine: Casa Havana

Culture & Life caught up with Eine at the launch of his latest project, Casa Havana – rum brand Havana Club’s pop-up love letter to the streets of Cuba – in the centre of London’s Soho. Eine was treated with a trip to Cuba’s vibrant capital and used his time there to soak up the culture, food and, of course, rum in order to create the venue’s signage. After meeting and working with local Cuban artists – from traditional film poster producers to graphic designers – he has brought their shared insights back with his own artwork. His latest piece has pride of place on the venue’s wall and is currently being auctioned off for homeless charity Shelter.

Ben Eine: Casa Havana

Artists normally puke when asked to do something for a brand, what interested you about this project?

Completely honestly – I get invited to do loads of things all the time around the world and I’ve never been to Cuba. I got an email that said ‘would you like to come to Cuba’ and I said yes. Basically, I was quite naïve about Cuba. I was quite aware of the political agenda and I’m a big fan of the the X-Men, so I know exactly what happened in Cuba. But I’d never been there.

So I got the email that said do you want to come to Cuba, and I’d never been – so that’s why I hooked up with Havana Club. On the back of that, I got to learn. It was kind of everything that I expected and then a lot lot more. So it was kind of, yeah, it was kind of inspirational and kind of like, just an amazing place to visit. And Cuba, as it stands right now, is not going to be there much longer. So yeah, if I’m honest with you that’s why I went.

What kind of effect has meeting these artists had on your work? Do you see your style developing in a different way?

Again, to be perfectly honest – I study typography, I study sign writing and I study it in lots of different formats in lots of different countries around the world. So I don’t think visiting Cuba has actually affected my style, but it’s changed my opinion of a country and what’s going on now.

Ben Eine: Casa Havana

Where there any particular influences that you saw on the artists out there? Obviously things are changing quite politically, is that already having an effect?

What I found quite interesting is that we met these screen printers. I went to Cuba and I was like, ‘if we get some paint I’ll paint something’. And they’re like, ‘yeah, we can’t get paint.’ So we went to visit these screen printers and they’re like, ‘yeah we can only get three colours.’ So we mix everything ourselves and everything is so tight – they basically worship colours and they worship their own paint.

And, you know, I used to screen print – so for me, I’d phone someone up and they’d be like, ‘yeah you want Pantone reference this, Pantone reference that’, but here they’d literally have to mix it out of three colours. So I kind of thought that was quite weird and annoying, but also if you look at Cuban art, that’s why it’s is so different from so many other forms of art. Because they have to work with these restrictions.

Ben Eine: Casa Havana

 Are there any moments in particular from your trip that stand out?

I recently got banned from America and I have a daughter from America who came and met me in Cuba who I hadn’t seen in six months. And it was her first time in Cuba, so that was pretty cool.

It was amazing. Just amazing to visit this Communist kind of place. You know, coming from some country where you have this opinion of Communism and blah blah blah. And it was eye-opening to go to one of these countries and actually experience it. We met so many people that loved what they did – just literally loved what they did. Basically, we met so many people who had a passion for what they do.

Speaking of America – do you have any thoughts on the situation over there and the rise of Trump?

I honestly believe that Donald Trump is a Democrat and he’s playing a Republican card so that everybody votes for Hilary.

Ben Eine: Casa Havana

That’s certainly plausible! So, with your own influences – you didn’t go to art school, and are essentially self-taught. What effect do you think this has on artists? There’s a lot of talk at the moment about creatives choosing not to go to advertising school or art school – do you think they’re necessary?

I would love to go to advertising school. To me, advertising is one of the purest forms of art. How can you tell me to buy something? How can you tell me to spend £9,000 on a Rolex watch that I don’t need – and yet it happens? It’s happened to me and I’ve done it twice! Am I an idiot? No, I’m not an idiot at all, I don’t think I am! So to me, advertising is so cool. That power is amazing.

Art school, I don’t know. I spent a lot of time, five years, screen-printing – so I screen-printed for Banksy, Jamie Hewlett, you know blah blah blah. And I never learned how to screen-print, I taught myself. Basically, art school teaches you what you can’t do. Whereas if you don’t go to school, you have no idea what you can’t do. So you can do fucking anything.

Which is what this (gestures at Cuban art in the room) is about. If you only have three colours and you have one shit screen, you’re going to make this. And this stands out in the world, which is amazing. It’s like, Brazil creates these amazing artists because of the political agenda, because of the quality of the paint and the way the people police Rio and San Paulo. New York created these artists because of the way that New York police police New York. London created these artists because of the way that London police police London. It creates different styles of art, and Havana’s created this.

Look at music. Look at how music is formed. Where the fuck did hip hop come from? Look at it, it’s so true. Look at punk and the punk movement. It came out of nothing and poverty. When the recession happened and the arts’ funding was cut, The Guardian phoned me up and were like ‘oh we’re doing this thing, what do you think’s going to happen with artists and the arts funding’, and I was like ‘good’ – because nothing good’s ever come from filling out a form and applying for a grant. I’ve never done it and I never will. I would rather steal my paint and jump over a fence and paint the side of a train. It’s true. That’s just my opinion.

Ben Eine: Casa Havana

Do you see the line between artists and brands blurring? You’ve worked in the commercial art world and you’re working with brands, does that change your perspective?

I’m very careful with the brands that I work with and who I work with. There’s a marriage between what I want and what the brand wants. If I’m happy and comfortable with that marriage, then I will do it. And if I’m not – and most of the time I’m not – then I don’t do it.

This to me was a cool project. It’s true – there are kids outside who are from Havana. It’s their first time in London and they’re having a whale of a time. I went to Cuba and saw the most amazing things and I’m sitting here talking to you. What a great project.

And what does my t-shirt say? It does not say Havana Club. This is a good project. They’ve done it right.

Casa Havana from Havana Club rum ran from 11 – 20 August in Soho, London.