If you missed part 1 of my interview with The Chewing Gum Artist, Ben Wilson, head back one entry! Otherwise, read on for the rest of my conversation with this imaginative artist who just completed a chew gum art trail along London’s King’s Road for the InTransit Arts Festival.
LLO: Tell us about some of the chewing gum art pieces that you’ve created over the past decade.
BW: I’ve been lying on the pavement for 10 years. I have done everything from smoochy love stories to horror stories, from unimaginable hysteric situations to really complex ones – the whole spectrum of human emotion. You get the school kids who want pink love hearts and stars and “best friends for life”. Then you get the tough guys who want their tags – Toxic and Riddler and stuff.
LLO: Do you have a favourite piece?
BW: I like the invention of the actual gum pic. That allows for anything to happen in that space.
LLO: Is there an example that really stands out for you?
BW: There’s a myriad of different situations. I’m recording the kids growing up for one family, so each year I do a picture. They started on the doorstep. Now they’re on the wall. Every time they have a birthday, I do a picture for them. I’ve done things for them like Spiderman and karate kid. They’re people I’ve really gotten to know now because the pictures are about them.
LLO: Do you feel that your work makes a difference to the community?
BW: If I’m working in different environments, I see the complexity of social landscape. The pictures reflect social landscape. They are about places and people. You have some desolate high streets, very standardised environments, where there’s more likely to be muggings. Some of these people can’t make a living and other issues arise. Everyone has a different version of problem solving if they’re allowed to try to change things on a grassroots level. So I’m doing things my way, but there’s no one right way or one right answer, but a total of all of these different approaches. You need diversity of actions. The pictures are a celebration of colour and they reflect the sheer beauty of diversity.
LLO: How do you make a living if you paint full time but don’t ask for money for your work?
BW: I do sell my work, doing art trails like this one for InTransit. I do shows, exhibit in a gallery in Mayfair. I have to make a living. And actually the whole thing couldn’t have happened if it was about money initially. It wouldn’t have happened because first you had to convince everyone that it was okay. If suddenly I start painting on cigarette butts or anything like that, people would say, “Ew, how can you do that?”. But chewing gum? That’s become normal now. *laughs* You’re breaking norms and finding a way to allow something to happen. I like the social element.
LLO: So if you’re making work for a gallery, do you chew your own gum?
BW: No, I remove it from the pavement, so it’s still someone’s discarded chewing gum. I place that on a brick.
LLO: So if it’s indoors, is it always on bricks?
BW: I do hidden trails inside museums and galleries as well. That’s quite fun. I hide the work. I melt the gum onto foil. I could do, say, 40 pictures and they could just go anywhere. And then I let them know afterwards, contact Time Out and all that. The media will photograph them and then suddenly the public knows and if they find them, they can have them.
LLO: Since you’re working along the King’s Road now, are you going to do a trail through the Saatchi Gallery?
BW: I could if I wanted to. I can put them anywhere.
LLO: Where are we most likely to find them indoors?
BW: My favorite place is the Tate Modern. There’s all sorts of metalwork and graphics which work perfectly to hide the pictures. You can do some that look like screw fittings or tiny lettering. It’s a form of camouflage that I really enjoy. They’re signed so people can have a free work of art. I may spend seven hours working on one tiny little river scape which, if it was in a gallery, would go for about £300. But I like the fact that a person can just find it and take it. It is a celebration of art and human diversity. It’s exciting that anyone can find them.
LLO: How did you choose to work along King’s Road?
BW: I got funding to do this trail, so I’m being paid. Every so often I get some paid work. Sometimes I collaborate with Garry Hunter from Fitzrovia Noir. He looks up the history of the area and says so and so used to live here. It’s nice to work with another person who has an understanding of what I’m doing. We met a woman today who just came up to us randomly on the street who now wants to do something with the Royal Ballet and the National Gallery. It’s amazing just being out here and the people you meet on the street.
LLO: Tell us about a few of the pieces we can find along the King’s Road trail.
BW: It’s nice working here. I’ve done a few streetscapes. Garry researched certain places and I’ve done pictures that relate. He said there’s a sound studio over here called Sound Techniques where Pink Floyd and The Who recorded. There’s a Carol Reed (film director) piece for “The Third Man”. It’s nice to acknowledge certain things about a place. There’s always random people coming up though, giving me a personal story. I’ll do these nearby. For example, there was just a guy passing on a bike and he asked me to do a picture for his two kids.
LLO: Do you find people react differently to you in an area like Chelsea where there’s not much street art compared to, say, East London?
BW: I’ve never gotten too into the East London thing. People have asked me to go down there and work but I am generally in Barnet. I’m a Barnet boy! I’m quite happy just to work outside Colney Hatch Lane or on the North Circular. Wherever you are, people just come up and say what they like. There’s been quite mixed reactions around Chelsea. Some people come up and they get it right away. Other people are like, “Ew, what are you doing”? But I don’t care whether people who come by get it or not. I like the conversations that are sparked by what I’m doing though.
LLO: Any memorable reactions besides people who come up with requests?
BW: It’s nice to find a little place that’s quiet. You get a sense of how everyone is observing everyone. I have had people say they see me on the bus while going to work and then get off at a different stop on the way home just to spend ages trying to find the picture, to see what I’ve been doing. I met one guy on Piccadilly who said his whole office, way up high, had been looking down debating what I was doing. I was absorbed in my work. You really get a sense though that everyone is observing everyone. We’re all interlinked in this big funny world.
LLO: What’s your favourite London discovery?
BW: There’s lots of things. I love the garden near Jack Straw’s castle in Hampstead Heath. It’s a beautiful pagoda near Hillview Park. It was built by this nutter in the early 20th century. I discovered it when it was semi-derelict. It’s the most beautiful garden. First, the whole thing was all abandoned and the garden was in two sections. There was this big old rich mansion where someone used to live. The mansion was sold and made into a hospital and then a whole section of the garden with all these pagodas and buildings and green houses was all wild and overgrown. Then there was a section that was public and slightly maintained. There’s a temple and an old staircase. People love it. They can climb into it. It’s a secret place.
But generally, I just get excited by the diversity of the people and the creativity of kids. I love little places like squares and old museums and, actually, I really like the Millennium Bridge! Four years worth of chewing gum pictures got destroyed there, sadly. I nearly got from one end to the other. I will be back though. They left one picture, one little happy face. There were loads of requests from people all over the world there. One guy wanted one for his girlfriend. He was in prison and was going to show her when he came out. He just wanted a little love heart.
LLO: So you’ve spent a lot of time on that bridge then! Any good stories?
BW: Yup. I remember a time. It was after I’d been featured in The New York Times. I had these guys come up to me to tell me to stop working and then this group of Americans came over saying, “No, no, he’s the Chewing Gum Man. Leave him alone!” The police said they didn’t care. Then that was it. I just moved on. Then came back later, of course. Another time my bloody mat blew into the River Thames. Some French people were filming. It’s hard to get a decent mat now…
LLO: You must really enjoy what you do since you’ve been at it for a decade.
BW: Yes, I really do enjoy what I do. It’s relaxing. I enjoy being out here. I like working in the snow or sometimes in the rain can be quite good. There are nice reflections. You have your umbrella so if you’ve got another fucking rainy day, it doesn’t matter.
If you missed the customised piece of chewing gum art that Ben created for Little London Observationist, check it out.