London Art Spot: Ben Wilson (Part 2)

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?
 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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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.
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?
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?
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.

InTransit_gum_art_by_Ben Wilson_curated_by_Fitzrovia_Noir_CIC

LLO: What’s your favourite London discovery?
here’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?
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.
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. 

London Art Spot: Ben Wilson (Part 1)


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?
BW: Yup!


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?
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?
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?
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?
 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?
 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.
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?
 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.

Ben Wilson Designs Chewing Gum Art for Little London Observationist

On Thursday last week, I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing the famous chewing gum artist, Ben Wilson while he was at work on a King’s Road piece. I have some transcribing to do but you should see the interview up in the next day or two.

Ben then very kindly came round on Saturday to create a customised piece of chewing gum art at the Little London Observationist headquarters!


It was late afternoon when my phone rang. It was Ben. “I’m just downstairs. I’ve been working on your piece for a little while now!” So I made him a cup of tea, milk no sugar, and headed downstairs.


He had chosen a lovely blue-green colour for the base with a black outline and was already working on the design.


On Thursday, Ben had asked me what I’d like on the chewing gum. My first thought was a camera. So he took a photo of my hand holding my camera for inspiration.


Ben is sprawled out on his paint-splattered sleeping mat. He’s surrounded by his backpack, an open tool box full of paint, a torch and some lighters, a scraper, lacquer, paintbrushes, a cup of water and his paint dish where he mixes colours.


He also has a packet of crisps and a mug of tea.


Ben lapses in and out of silence when he works. Sometimes he’s lost in concentration. Other times he sits up telling me animated stories of his family, his three children, other artwork he has painted around the world and his general love of creativity and nature.


He works on such a tiny scale, but detail is very important in Ben’s work. He looks at me before he dips his brush in a spot of red paint and says, “Now this will really bring it to life!” I watch as he paints my fingernails on the hand holding the camera.


He must have a very steady hand and great eyesight. He’s been painting chewing gum on the streets of London – thousands and thousands of them – for almost 10 years now. October marks a decade.


He invited me to his studio to see some of his other projects so I am looking forward to that.


Ben paints full time, as you’ll read in his interview in the next few days. Sitting next to him on the pavement is a small flip notebook. While he’s working, people often approach with requests and he writes down what they would like as well as their contact details. He loves to connect with people and he takes these requests for free. To Ben, this is the beauty of his work and what he most enjoys.


Of course, an artist also has to make some money to survive. To this end, Ben also works on some commissioned projects like his new gum art trail that follows the King’s Road as part of Chelsea and Kensington’s InTransit Festival this month. Ben is following the “Route of Kings and Punks“. But more on that in the interview post this week.


Ben is working on the Little London Observationist lettering when the sky goes dark.


We feel a few drops, but Ben is well prepared to work in any weather – rain or shine, even snow. He digs his umbrella out from his backpack and pulls on a pair of reflective trousers.


And he carries on.


Ben works for a few hours. During this time, people at the pub across the street and passersby watch curiously, look backward as they walk past. I know many will come back to see what on earth he was doing painting on the ground – not a sight you often see around here.

Once the painting has been finished and it’s been set with a flame from a lighter, it’s time for a protective lacquer coat. Ben has a few cut outs in his toolbox which he uses to protect the pavement surrounding his work when he sprays the chewing gum.


Once he is satisfied with his work, he chips away any paint that may have dripped on the sidewalk and cleans up the edges. He’s very conscious about the impact we have on our environment which is much of the reason he paints on discarded chewing gum in the first place.


When the piece is finished, Ben hangs hangs around for a few minutes. He tells me a story of how he was once caught drawing mini “gum” pieces inside of street art books that feature his work. This was at the Tate Modern bookshop. He was scolded before the manager approached and was excited by the personal touch he had given them.

Then he picks up his old camera with its cracked screen and takes a few photos of the new chewing gum piece for his collection. He shows me a few photos of his mother and children.


And then he’s off. Ben loves to cook and is heading home to make a fish pie for his son for dinner.


For more background on Ben Wilson, here’s a lovely article that was published in The New York Times

Ben Wilson’s Chewing Gum Art

It takes Ben Wilson an average of about three hours to create each piece of gum art. If you’re lucky you may even spot him lying on the concrete with his blowtorch and acrylic paints tackling the latest gob of abandoned chewing gum with an intricately detailed mini-masterpiece. Adds a new dimension to appreciating the little things… Ben’s been at it for eight years.

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