Earlier this week, I wrote about the customised piece of chewing gum art that Ben Wilson made for Little London Observationist. I met Ben last week, just off the King’s Road in Chelsea where he as been working diligently on a trail for the InTransit Festival of Arts and in collaboration with Garry Hunter of Fitzrovia Noir (who contributed some of the photos in this interview). He was sprawled out his paint-spotted sleeping mat, on the pavement, surrounded by colourful bottles and an open toolbox. He was working with his new favourite hue – a bright fluorescent green.
The Chewing Gum Man, as he is widely known, has been perfecting his art of beautifying this discarded substance around the world for almost a decade and I’ve been itching to interview him since my last post about Ben in 2012. Now he’s bring his street art to West London where it’s rarely seen.
Read on for my chat with this fascinating artist and then hop over to the article in The New York Times when for more when you finish.
LLO: How long have you been creating chewing gum art?
BW: It will be 10 years in October.
LLO: Is it something you do full time?
LLO: Are you a self-taught artist or do you have a formal art education?
BW: I did an art foundation, but generally I’ve just done my own thing. My father was an artist. My mum did illustration. I would say I’m a mixture.
LLO: What do you enjoy most when you’re not painting?
BW: Gardening. I like mainly flowers, but I can get into veg too. I also used to work in woodland areas, building sculptures. I did a big project in Baltimore.
LLO: Do you do a lot of international work then?
BW: A fair bit. I’ve worked in lots of different countries over the years: Finland, Serbia, America (until I got put in a detention center).
LLO: For creating art?
BW: I had contacts in America but they didn’t sort out my papers properly. They messed up. It’s a complicated story. I got to wear one of those nice orange uniforms and was put in solitary confinement even though they invited me! Anyway, it’s all in the past.
LLO: Where did you create your first piece of chewing gum art?
BW: In Muswell Hill, on Colney Hatch Lane. I live nearby.
LLO: What made you see a piece of chewing gum art and think I’m going to paint that?
BW: I was upset by all the rubbish and sense of disconnectedness where people just affect things in a slightly detached way. When people detach from their environment, that’s when the environment gets destroyed and that’s also when people destroy each other. If you have a love of a place, it’s something which, if you really care, you wouldn’t (*pauses* – sorry, I get involved in the picture and it is sometimes to remember what I’m talking about at the same time).
LLO: So does this tie in to the “urban tumbleweeds” you were showing me earlier?
BW: Certainly does. People think they don’t impact their environment, but we all do just by being who we are. We have to take responsibility for that. Since I’ve been working on the pavement, I see balls that blow along. It’s all people’s hair mainly, but it can pick up anything as it’s rolling along. It’s relatively light and roughly the size of a tennis ball. It picks up old cigarettes butts, bits of rubbish, Rizlas, anything really. It blows around. When you’re working, you see how hair gets caught in little crevices. This is an “urban tumbleweed”.
LLO: Would you say you make chewing gum art to put a positive spin on something negative?
BW: I do pictures because people ask me to do pictures for them. I do what I do out of a sense of compassion. You can see a dark side when people are out of touch, but if there’s a sense of belonging then something negative is less likely to happen. I am transforming rubbish. People are bombarded by images with so much consumerism around us. It’s stuff they’re buying or things they feel they have to have. This is different. It’s a small picture and I care for the pictures. I transform something that has been rejected by society. It’s about caring, taking the time and making a stand for something. It can be any degree of absurdness, but it can also be quite serious.
LLO: How to does connect directly to your work?
BW: When you’re working, you go with the place. People come up to me and make requests. I keep a book of requests and the pictures tend to reflect the people. It’s kind of sad how depersonalised some areas are becoming. It’s all being corporatised with big companies who take people out of the equation. They tried to get rid of people who sell tickets in the Underground, but you need a human presence there so it isn’t a frightening place to go. If people don’t invest in people, then there’s no one to care. You need people. There has to be a sense that people can be creative in their environment. I’m finding a way to be creative in my environment and connect with people. I think it’s a right.
LLO: You must get tons of requests.
BW: I have to say sorry for all the pictures I haven’t done yet. I haven’t been able to do them because my father died last year and around that time, I lost a toolbox I had for years. I lost about four request books with about 200 requests. So all of those people will think I didn’t care. I don’t ask anything for the pictures when I do them.
LLO: Tell us about the process you go through to create a piece from the beginning to the end.
BW: Okay. Find a piece of discarded, spat-out chewing gum. Heat it with a blowtorch. Then I apply a lacquer into the bubbling gum. That stabilises the gum itself. Then I put one coat of acrylic enamel on the melted gum followed by a second coat. I make sure the whole thing is dry and rock hard. Then I paint the picture. Then I put a clear car lacquer over the top. Then I apply a heat again. And you have a picture that can be rained on and walked on. It can even be under a puddle of water. It’s an invention. You then have a gum pic and the discarded chewing gum has been transformed.
LLO: Have you ever had a negative experience while painting?
BW: As soon as I started, a lot of people tried to stop me. Then I was arrested, had my DNA taken by force. I was even beaten because someone thought I shouldn’t be working in the city of London. But why can’t I? It’s a right for me to be creative in my environment. I’m doing work that’s for people. It’s about social cohesion. Every time I do a picture for a different person, it’s making links between people. If someone doesn’t like this, then they are also within their rights to remove it. You can’t be arrested for painting on a piece of chewing gum though. That’s very important. Also, it’s transient. It won’t stay forever. I used to creep around at night a fair bit painting on billboards, but then did it during the day in a pair of overalls. If I was stopped I’d say it was a community art project. But then I switched to gum. The arm of law can’t get me now. Nah nah!
LLO: I see you have a build up of dry paint you carry around.
BW: Yes, you get attached to certain things. The toolbox and this multi-coloured “muffin” as I call it. It’s in a glass thing for little nibbles. This is number three that I have had. The first legendary multi-coloured muffin built right up. Then the glass broke off. I got knocked over by a double decker bus. Literally. I was running along the side of the road and had my rucksack caught. I went flying and my toolbox opened up. My stuff went everywhere. The glass of the whole multi-coloured muffin thing broke, but it was solid paint so it carried on. Then everyone was in uproar, having a go at the bus driver. This one here is a young muffin, a little amoeba. It hasn’t grown up yet. It’s organic.
LLO: Where are your favourite places to work in London now?
BW: I still do a lot of work around where I grew up like Barnet, Whetstone, North Finchley and Muswell hill where I live. People come out and say, “What are you doing? I’ve been looking at you there for five years!”
Come back for part two of my interview with Ben tomorrow.