Artist Ben Allen recently swapped his hometown of Brighton for a new life in Cornwall. It’s a move that means he can bring up his young family in a rambling new homestead, and spend more time indulging his twin passions of surfing and art.
As an artist, Ben is best known for his distinctive style, described by British gallery Art Republic as “an exotic cocktail of graffiti, street, graphic and pop art”. He grew up skating and surfing, early passions that would prompt him to spend most of his twenties travelling the world in search of empty, warm waves. These trips to Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, South America, Brazil and Mexico were formative experiences that had a huge influence on Allen and turned him onto the idea of creating images for a living.
Since then, Ben has made a name for himself as one of the UK’s most exciting young artists, as recent shows in London, New York, Singapore, LA and Korea prove. His work is also garnering coverage all over the place, including the Times, Guardian and GQ.
We recently caught up with Ben to find out more about his artistic and board riding life.
Hi Ben, so first of all can you tell us a little bit about how you got into this world?
It’s my mum’s fault! She bought me my first skateboard when I was 8 or 9 – a red and blue fibreglass mini deck similar to the Penny Skateboards you see now. It was just awesome and I spent all my time outside the house annoying the neighbours and learning ollies, like all kids. Then I got into surfing at about 12. Whenever there was a wave, I’d beg, borrow or steal a board to get in the sea. I had two wetsuits, both proper 80s neon pink and yellow things; one had a hole in the arm and the other in the crotch, and I’d wear them both together in winter and be able to stay out for a couple of waves. When I hit 17 I went to Indonesia for five weeks, and that spurred me on to do some more traveling around the world, taking pictures with an SLR camera which kind of opened up the creative side of things. And I was lucky because from then on I spent loads of time in Cornwall in Trevone, near Padstow. I’d surf Constantine, Boobies and Harlyn. It’s spectacular down here.
And then how did you get into art?
I never gelled with school apart from art classes – always enjoyed that. I also always loved Warhol’s work, and Basquiat, the early skate graphics of Jim Phillips, and all the stuff coming out of Powell Peralta done by VCJ (Vernon Courtlandt Johnson) – like the skulls and the Tony Hawk graphics. So my influences were this mix of skate art – anything by Santa Cruz, the Natas Kaupas graphics, the Jim Phillips hand, the DeathBox teapot and everything – and I was just as interested in how it all went together as much as the actual look of it. I always wondered how they got the graphics on the skate wheels, so I realised that I liked the pro-lem solving side of making things too.
But it was only really when I got back from my travels, and Mexico in particular, that I started to really get into painting. There was a gallery near my house in Brighton called Studio 113 and I remember walking past there and I said to the guy working there “I really like your work, where do you make all this stuff?” He showed me this basement across the road where there were a few artists working and they had space for one more. Within weeks I’d moved in, and I sold my first pieces through the gallery. It was like it had all fallen into place, and I stayed there for about five years, learning my trade.
What was the last show or artist to impress you?
Man, there are so many – there’s a lot of stuff happening all over the world – and I try to keep on top of things as much as I can. I’d say Faile – anything that they do. It might be obvious but it’s still so good. There’s a lot of sculpture I love, especially Takashi Murakami’s stuff. Jeff Koons too. I was in Bilbau and they had the dog made of pansies that’s about 50 foot high – it’s absolutely amazing. Tattoo art, always been inspired by that. Has anyone used one of my pieces? I’ve had a lot of people who’ve asked me to do designs, – my sister had one of my pieces tattooed and there was a guy who sent me some pictures recently of work of mine he’d had tattooed. Yeah it’s really cool, nice that they liked it enough to have it on them permanently.
What’s your favourite piece of work so far?
Wow. I’d say it’s probably some of this current stuff – the new skull pieces that I’ve done. Sometimes the hardest thing is to to make something simple, and to be patient enough to see it through, and achieve your original vision. So I feel like one of the biggest things is that art is teaching me to be patient. I’m not sure I’ve totally learnt that lesson. I’m up in the middle of the night – I should get an easel some canvas and some paint to put next to the bed – but it’s great having that focus. It’s the same creative energy that you want to get when you’re surfing or skating. They all feed off each other.
What art do you own personally?
I’ve got pieces by Faile, Obey Giant, erm, Mike Giant, Jeff Soto, Judith Supine, Dave Kinsey. Unfortunately most of my old skate decks are gone sadly. I wish I’d kept them all, even the bust ones. I’ve got a few surf boards Fluid Juice custom swallow tail fish done in retro colours teal blue and I designed the graphics, but none of my old skate stuff survived the long haul I’m afraid.