We are on the millennium bridge, St. Pauls dominating one end and the tower of the Tate Modern the other. In the middle of the bridge lays Ben Wilson, Chewing Gum man, a regular sight on the bridge over the past seven months during which time he has created over 400 mini pieces of art.
It’s not the sort of thing you expect to see in the middle of this busy thoroughfare. Ben is painting onto discarded chewing gum “it’s not criminal damage” he tells me “the chewing gum is already there I’m just transforming it into something beautiful that people would like to look at.”
Judging by the responses of passers-by who stop to chat he is a popular sight. Kids in particular are intrigued and react excitedly to what is going on. People stop and ask for their photo with him and once they spot the chewing gum art you can see them searching for more. What’s more much of the work Ben creates are requests “a lot of the pieces are valuable to someone, it means something to them” he explains. Not all requests he can make, sometimes it could take up to 3 hours to create a piece and he speaks to a lot of people in that time but he has a book where he records them just in case he gets a chance in the future.
It’s the tread of the bridge that holds the appeal, the thrown away chewing gum gets stuck in-between and then trampled on, clearing the gum from the tread but retaining it in the groove. It’s the endless possibility of patterns that seems to excite Ben’s creative mind. As Ben explains “sometimes I can look at the shape and I can see what I want to create…the gum gets stuck between the tread and takes on an echo or a form of the bridge.”
A woodcarver by trade, Ben has been painting discarded chewing gum now for over 10 years and he’s become well known. One woman, recognising him immediately stopped to ask when he was coming back to Barnet a place he last painted gum on the street 10 years ago “the council have replaced all the paving slabs there now” he sighs and to be fair as he lays there today restoring one of his previous works, he seems happy where he is.
Getting across the bridge is easier said than done. He takes myself and street art photographer Claude Crommelin on a bit of a tour. He remembers the stories of each and every one and it’s clear that he also has his favourites. On a couple of occasions he drops his rucksack gets out his paints and completes a restoration job on a piece that might have been trampled a little too much. It means a 20 minute stop in the middle of the bridge each time and a delay which prevents our passage to the end where the prize is a cup of coffee in Ben’s favourite patisserie.
One piece in particular which he seems proud of is his tribute to a victim of the Japanese Tsunami, written in Japanese it was requested by one of the relatives. It’s a nice touch, that would have meant a lot to the person asking and it’s really this sort of interaction that goes to the heart of Ben’s work.
The chewing gum is discarded, out of sight and out of mind, seen as disgusting by many. Yet here we have it, transformed time and time again from something horrid to something that means a lot to the person requesting it. It suddenly takes on new meaning and has been given the kind of worth that would otherwise be unthinkable.
“I didn’t know that this would happen” explains Ben when I ask if he’d considered seven months ago that he’d be sitting here having created such a body of work “I just wanted to see where it would go” he adds and it seems there is perhaps something about the cosmopolitan nature of the people crossing the bridge that he likes. “The pictures are for people from all around the World so I’m making links between people, because we’re just all the same, we’re human beings and we have a right to live and it’s a way for me to acknowledge that as an artist” he says.
So for the time being he will continue to work on the bridge, perhaps even trying to work towards the Tate Modern at some point. What’s certainly true though is that the possibilities of his work are endless so long as people spit out Chewing Gum and so long as people remain naturally inquisitive. It’s the idea of transforming something unwanted combined with a genuine need for interaction with others that seems to drive Ben and long may his unique form of art continue.
Ben Wilson, the Chewing Gum Man, was interviewed on the Millenium Bridge on Monday 14th April 2014. The bridge is a pedestrian walkway linking St. Pauls with the Tate Modern on either side of the River Thames.
Ben Wilson Gallery
Chewing Gum Gallery on the Millenium Bridge