Ben Slow: an urban artist in touch with the communities of the world

Ben Slow Mallow StreetHaving completed a Fine Arts degree from UCA Canterbury in 2006, Ben Slow moved to London, took a steady job as an image librarian and bought a flat with his girlfriend of the time. Soon enough, however, he couldn’t take it anymore. Life had to be more exciting than the monotonous and predictable path that lay ahead of him.

Audrey-Hepburn-muralDuring those years, Ben Slow walked the streets of London until he knew the city like the back of his hand. The East End with its vibrant community of urban streets artists bore a particular appeal for the budding artist and its walls offered him his first foray into urban painting. Equipped with spray paint, brushes, stencils, inks, acrylic paint and basically anything he could get his hand on, he started painting iconic figures such as Twiggy and Audrey Hepburn. Soon enough, portraiture became his signature.

His paintings have an arresting presence probably because they tell meaningful stories of their subjects. They have substance and deal with issues close to his heart. In London, in collaboration with the charity, C.A.L.M, he actively addressed the issue of high rate suicides amongst men in the UK. His paintings deal also with homelessness or racism, or simply pay homage to well known local figures such as Charlie Burns and Sandra Esqulant. They are often painted in locations that bear resonance to their subjects. Charlie Burns, who has since passed away, was a familiar face around the streets of the East End before Ben Slow immortalised him in his painting.

Charlie BurnsBen has set no limit for himself other than the subject matter. He likes to take the time to research characters and to prepare knowing in advance on which wall and how much space will be allocated to the painting. While in the US and in South Africa, he showed the same respect for the people he painted and his portraits were always anchored to the place where he painted them. In Soweto, South Africa, the large mural of Ruth First references the fact that she was instrumental in the drafting of the Freedom Charter that outlined a vision of an egalitarian and apartheid-free South Africa. She paid for that commitment with her life. This painting will form part of a documentary on the anti-apartheid struggle currently being produced by Six Oranges, a London based production team. In San Francisco, in the Tenderloin more precisely, Ben Slow worked with White Walls Gallery whose focus is graffiti and street artists. There he portrayed homelessness in all its despair and nudity. Ben Slow is very  drawn to people who have a story to tell, but he equally enjoys going with the flow and letting his work be more organic and experimental.

When I met him he was busily working on the face of a perfect stranger. This is a collaboration with Jim McElvaney, another contemporary urban artist from Brighton who is always on the look-out for people’s faces that catch his attention. He has no preconceived idea of what he is looking for. He browses online and through old magazines until a face just jumps out of the page. Ben and Jim chose a man whose face they found striking. The fact that the portrait was that of an old man in a world obsessed with youth seemed an added bonus to Ben. When I arrived, the edge of the face had already been sketched out and the eyes, a prominent part of the subject, had been painted by Ben Slow. If it ever was the case that eyes are a reflection of the soul, it certainly is true in Ben Slow’s artwork.

New EndingsThese days, Ben Slow is very active at work. His range is also expanding. Until recently, he shied away from colours but he has now started  integrating some in his paintings. And although the focus is still almost exclusively on the face, he started playing with the idea of deconstructing it, making it more abstract and organic. A bit in Francis Bacon’s vein. Ben Slow also wants to introduce more and more of a dimension of fine art in his street art paintings. Hence, the collection of new canvas works that adorned the Exposure Gallery in Mayfair. The new work revealed a facet of Ben Slow’s talent with, for instance, the face of a woman finely etched out with starkly contrasting marks of colours cutting across the canvas. This exhibition entitled New Endings was Ben’s first one-man show.

Recently named by Time Out as one of the ten street artists from around the world to look out for, Ben Slow has already participated in Upfest, one of the most prestigious festivals featuring urban street art within Bristol’s wall or in inner Bristol. He has also been invited to Crimes of Minds in Brest, France, that reveals new talents in the jungle of urban artists and he has taken part in the Moniker Art Fair in 2012.

255664_10151374501196478_817303112_nHis works has been exhibited as part of LOAD, a unique street art experience presented at The Royal Albert Hall. Yet Ben Slow feels that his art is still in its infancy. He has no such thing in mind as a planned career. He would like to find more ways to express his art by collaborating with different disciplines such as music (PSM is a group he admires) and fashion, designing tee-shirts with Antique. In a way, he is done with Brick Lane and its saturated street art scene and is ready to venture to new territories such as Brixton, West London or even Watford. In other words, he wants to step out of his comfort zone. On a larger scale, his thinking is that the more obscure and remote the place, the more interesting the work will be and the more rewarding the connection will be with the local community. Cuba and South Korea are places he would like to explore. But you might well see him resurface in South Africa or in LA.

One thing is certain, he feels that London and particularly the East End is saturated with overexposed artists who use its walls in lieu of gallery space and who have lost the true spirit of what graffiti artwork is about: occupy a local territory, express ideas, perhaps convey a message in the process but above all free art from its confinement. Be accessible and free for the eyes of a population that most certainly doesn’t tread the well known path of galleries and museums of the world. Be a messenger, an eye-opener and above all, never forget the ephemeral dimension of it all.

Ben Slow Mural, Olive St., San Francisco, 2013Regarding the subject of ephemeral versus posterity, Ben Slow has not enough strong words to denounce the attitude of street artists who cry over the disappearance of their pieces of work. In his view, the controversy over “Slave Labour”, Banksy alleged work, wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow if there was not so much money involved in it. Who does the art belongs to ultimately? The artist, the public or the owner of the wall it was painted on? The latter in his view.

If you don’t come across Ben Slow busily painting a mural, then you may be lucky enough to attend one of his Alternative London tours. Otherwise, if you hang out at the festive and bohemian it-place, RedMarket, you may discover him rejoicing in eating a Burger Bear, the best burger in town according to him.


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