Interview by Dominic Ciambrone
Photos by Bryam Villacres
If you’ve ever caught yourself staring at the mind-bending bling hanging from your favorite rapper’s neck, chances are, to paraphrase the words of A$AP Ferg, Ben Baller did the chain. Throughout his career, Baller has created some of the most outlandish pieces of jewelry this world has ever seen. In doing so he carved out a space within the often-stuffy jewelry world for hip-hop and wild originality. We were able to persuade the celebrity jeweler to take a minute from working on his latest obsession, his golf game, to speak with Dominic Ciambrone about his K-town roots, how he got into making jewelry and his most beloved pairs of sneakers.
Let’s start out with telling me your name and where you’re from.
My name is Ben Baller, I’ve had that moniker since the spring of 1992. I got it from my assistant basketball coach in college—a lot of people don’t know that I used to play college ball. Back in the day, when you played sports you were just called a baller, it wasn’t about any kind of money. I was broke back then. I was born and raised in Koreatown, Los Angeles—but I’ve been everywhere, though.
How did you become interested in jewelry?
I always liked jewelry as a kid. I’ve been messing around in hip-hop since the eighties and seeing guys like Slick Rick wearing these big chains, I always thought it was so cool. I had a real attraction to gold jewelry and my mom began making a little money. She came to America with $20 and she got me a herringbone chain when I was, like, 11. When I got into it professionally, my mom’s younger brother was a jeweler from Korea and my cousin took over his business. He was doing all of this hood shit in the heart of South Central Los Angeles, the home of the drive-by, the whole nine in the Slauson Swap Meet—rest in peace, Nipsey Hussle. If I had any money, he would sell me a chain here and there. But then he began doing custom jewelry and that’s when I started getting into the jewelry business. I became a jeweler by trade in ’05 and I didn’t start making my own pieces until 2009 or 2010.
That’s crazy, because I don’t think a lot of people know how you started. People nowadays try to get into it because it’s cool and you just happened to get into it.
I was a very well-known sneakerhead at the time when it wasn’t as big. It was a cool little hobby and there was a tight-knit community of sneakerheads, but they were mostly J-heads, people who love Air Jordans. I’ve been in sneaker culture since at least ‘81 when the Air Force was created—I’ve been around that long. I remember buying Jordans with my own money in ’85 at Champs and JCPenny. So coming from selling my entire sneaker collection to figuring out what I was going to do now, as well as exiting the music industry for good—it’s pretty crazy, I just pivoted. I decided to jump into building jewelry with eyes closed, like, “Boom, let’s go.”
When you started making jewelry, how did you build your persona? I know you are who you are and you don’t play a part, but how did you integrate you as the artist into jewelry?
I was in the music business for almost 10 years with no social media and I had developed a folklore among Asians and people in hip-hop that I had a certain persona—even though I’d been broke a few times. I was wearing Versace shirts and expensive shoes or whatever. They didn’t know I was spending money beyond my means just so I could look fresh. With all of my music clientele and working with Jay-Z and Dr. Dre, I was able to pivot a little bit. My first clients were Travis Barker, The Game, Nas, Mariah Carey, etc. So that carried it, and I realized I was built for this. Then every year it got bigger and bigger. 2017 was the breakout year. It was the year where people went, “Oh, he’s internet famous. He’s known in LA.” I still had a million followers but in 2017, I became globally famous. I won Jeweler of the Year and there’s never been a jeweler like me who won before. Not one single rapper on Earth would even know anybody even nominated for Jeweler of the Year because it’s a whole different world of people. I’m here today slowly pivoting out of it and I’m only taking jobs that change the game. If we’re not going into a museum, I don’t really care.
That’s how I am with shoes now, too.
I don’t have time to do some $5,000 shit. Like, come on, man.
I look at my craft in a similar way. You really fuck with the craft, it’s not just about a quick buck. You really care about how it’s made and you want to learn from the best, continue to be the best, and then put your spin on it. What’s the wildest piece of jewelry you’ve ever made?
I had a pimp in Dallas who’d lost his eyeball. He had a prosthetic eyeball installed and we put a four-carat eyeball into his prosthetic.
That’s pretty wild.
But as far as the wildest creation altogether, with everything I’ve done from the beginning when it comes to colors and intricacy, it would have to be Kid Cudi’s KAWS piece that we did, especially because it was part of a collaboration. That was huge, him overseeing and everything. The backpack opens up enough to put a dub sack of weed in there—it was a masterpiece. It was shown at the Met Gala. KAWS is taking it to museums—this is literally history, you know?
That’s how you should create every piece. Like you said, museum-ready. What are some of the unique challenges you had working with famous clients, from your early years to now?
I think early on, the resources and having the team, the people who knew what they were doing. If everyone’s learning as we go along and there’s no direct mentor or the mentor is limited to a certain point, it’s tough. So going to Korea, going to Israel and going to certain places to source great people who are master jewelers or master goldsmiths—that was cool. As more money came in, the struggles became less. I think dealing with people who don’t understand the cost of jewelry is a funny thing. Jason of Beverly Hills told me, “Bro, don’t ever take a job for $25,000, believe me.” These guys are going to bitch and moan, bother you every single day. But if you have a price tag of $100,000, the person has spent the money and understands to a certain extent. Sometimes we get to the point where we’re not going to haggle prices with anybody and I just had that recently with a guy who was like, ‘Oh man, I’ve got no budget blah blah whatever.’ I was like, ‘Well, it’s going to cost you, like, 20 grand for this ring, that’s probably right around my minimum. Then the guy’s like, ‘Yo bro, I need a discount, dog.’ Not only are you on mute and everything, but there’s no discussion anymore. I don’t wanna do the job as it is.
Is there a piece you haven’t made yet that’s in your mind?
It’s funny. I don’t mean to sound like a jerk, but there isn’t. I’ve done everything now. There may be some pieces that I haven’t made yet, but as far as a challenge, I’ve done it. Aesthetically and all the way down to a physical piece, there’s nothing I want to do. As far as artists I’d like to work with, yeah, sure. I mean, I don’t know off the top of my head, but it’d be cool to work with Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst or something. But other than that, I’ve pretty much fulfilled my bucket list.
With everything you do, you put a lot of focus into it. What kind of focus comes with golf?
Man, at first it was just the mentality of playing the toughest game in the world. There’s no argument from anybody that it’s the hardest game in the world. No one’s perfect, it’s so difficult and such a skilled game. But the fact that it was something I could do at my age at 49, I’m six months away from 50. The calmness that it brought me, being on the golf course and at the same time, not being a patient person. Thank God I’m bald, because I would pull all of my hair out wanting to fucking kill somebody because shit’s so fucked up. I love how it makes me feel being out there and then getting addicted to that one good shot. You hit that one good shot and you have 70 bad ones.
Let’s talk about your tattoos a little bit. It was actually my first time seeing some of the details of your tattoos. Tell me about your first tattoo—how old were you, when did you get it, who is it by?
My first tattoo was really late in life, dude. I got my first tattoo in, like, 1994 and I was 21. By the way, in 1994, unless you were a really tough gangster or a Hell’s Angel biker type, you didn’t really see anyone with tattoos. That was just a fact. You had to be cool and there was no numbing cream, none of that. It was a tough thing. My first tattoo was by legendary tattoo artist Mark Mahoney who worked at this place called Tattoo Mania on Sunset Boulevard, which was owned by another legendary dude named Gil Monte. For the next six years, he probably did, like, seven or eight tattoos on me and I became completely addicted. I then ran into an old friend of mine who became the hottest tattoo artist in the world, known as Mister Cartoon. So I started getting blasted up by Cartoon, he did a lot of my tattoos. Probably 75 percent or more of my tattoos are from Cartoon—my entire back piece is Cartoon. Then, more recently, Chuey Quintanar did a lot of my most intricate pieces that you probably saw. Most of my chest has been done by Chuey. I feel like people know me enough to think they know everything about me and then they see me without a shirt on and they’re like, “Oh no, I didn’t know.” Ain’t no space for even a little happy face, I’m blasted as fuck.
I love that, it’s also the way I look at what I do. So let’s get into the shoes we made together. Can you speak more on the history and how you came up with the concept for the different pairs?
I’m so deep in the game. There ain’t that many people who were buying Jordan Ones the week they came out in ’85—they’ve been iconic to me. The 3 “Black Cement” was probably my favorite and then I would say the 1 “Chicago”. I was like, “I’ve heard of [the Shoe Surgeon], we have so many mutual friends. Why not do something to celebrate Koreatown, to celebrate the Lakers slightly? I’m big on snakeskin, I’ve always loved snakes and pythons. When you handed me those shoes at your downtown spot, that really small spot, not only was my mind blown but putting them on was the real test. The fact that they’re more comfortable than a regular 1, the execution on them, and the fact that Virgil [Abloh] got to see them in person. The K-town on there, the colorway. The box and the presentation were like, “Yo, this guy’s really figured it out.” I think the funniest thing is I lived off Wilshire, I was a block and a half away from Wilshire, which was the most famous street next to Olympic Boulevard in Koreatown. So the fact that we called it the “Off-Wilshire,” how crazy is that? That pair was so coveted. I wore those in February this year with the NFL owners with a Dior suit on and people were like, “Yo, I never seen these before.” I’m like, “Well, these are old. They don’t come out just for fun, you know what I mean? They gotta come out at the real right time.” They’re just incredible. I mean, I have some shoes that are probably $25,000 to $30,000 because they’re rare. Those can’t fuck with nothing and all three shoes that you’ve given me have literally been the most insane shoes ever. I didn’t think I could love anything more.
I had fun making all three pairs. I think it’s more about the story behind them and what took so long to even get them in your hands. The Kingsley Ave. ones, we were sitting on those for years and then when they were finished, it took another eight months for you to pick them up. I think it’s cool how the story came to be. It’s not like we just had an idea and then it got made, this and that. There was a lot of energy around it and I had a lot of fun doing it.
Those shoes are big parts of the appearance of my closet, they’re coveted in my closet. I think that first post might have had 70,000, 80,000, maybe 100,000 likes. Come on, dog, for a sneaker? It was crazy and I was glad to give you a spotlight, you deserve every bit of it. I’m sorry, man, I just realized I have a fourth pair of Shoe Surgeon shoes. I just realized it now because I’m looking at my man cave, I have these Twix. They’re sitting in the box and I’ve never worn them.