Crossing London’s Millenium Bridge always involves negotiating a crowd. There are Londoners with their gaze fixed straight ahead, or on their phones, trying to get from A to B, and tourists taking in the stunning views down the Thames on their way to St Paul’s Cathedral or to see the international art collection at the Tate Modern.
But the bridge hosts a secret art collection. An art collection that you will only see if you look down. An art collection painted on the spat-out chewing gum left on the bridge and its surrounding walkways.
My sister Annie was out around London last week filming and taking photographs for a travel guide project she’s doing. She was taking pictures of the minature artworks on the bridge when she (almost literally) stumbled across the Chewing Gum Man himself – artist, Ben Wilson – lying on the ground, surrounded by a small crowd, adding the finishing touches to his latest mini-masterpiece. She stopped to take some pictures and he was happy to be photographed and to chat about his work.
Ben is a professional artist with a background in painting, wood-carving and sculpture. He has exhibited all over the world. Check out his listing on Wikipedia to find out more https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Wilson_(artist)
Driven by his dislike of waste and a desire to improve the urban environment, in the late nineties, Ben started experimenting with occasional chewing-gum paintings. Has now created thousands of them across London (particularly in Muswell Hill where he lives) but also around the UK and in Europe. He says he loves the idea of taking something that has been thrown away and transforming it into something amazing.
Each transformation takes between a couple of hours and three days to complete, using a special technique that involves heating the gum with a small blow torch, then coating it with three layers of acrylic enamel, before painting it with special acrylic paints and sealing it with clear lacquer. With the public ‘donating’ an endless supply of canvasses, Ben needs constant inspiration for his creations. His subjects include requests from the public, portraits, mini-landscapes and strange creatures from his imagination. The shape of each painting is determined by where the gum spitting has taken place. On the bridge, where it is squashed into the metal, the images are made up of slightly disconnected oblongs. On the ramps down from the bridge to the river banks, they tend to be round.
Britain spends about £150 million each year cleaning chewing gum from pavement and although Ben’s work does get eroded when the bridge is cleaned, there is no deliberate effort to remove it. In 2009, he was arrested in Trafalgar Square but, he explains that, technically, what he does does not count as criminal damage, because he is painting the gum, not the pavement.
There is a serious intent behind Ben’s chewing gum art. He sees it as a small way of helping people reconnect with their environment. In an Observer article some years ago he said, ‘Kids are not allowed to feel any connection with where they live … They can’t play in the streets because they are likely to get run over; then you have the national curriculum, and all this testing at school, and no opportunity to play or to make things, and everything you do outside is recorded on surveillance cameras. The only imagery that children see around them are billboards and TV; every part of their environment is out of bounds or sold off. That’s why they don’t care about their streets. This is a small way of connecting people.’
At the moment, Ben is using Kickstarter to try to raise funds to produce a book featuring a picture trail of his chewing gum art from St. Pauls, across the Millennium Bridge and into the Tate Modern. He hasn’t reached the Tate Modern yet – he is nearly there – but with only 19 fundraising days to go (ends midday 13th September) he has only raised just over £3000 of the £8000 he needs for publication. You can find out more about the project and, if you want to support him, pledge a donation, here https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/studiomoe/ben-wilson-the-chewing-gum-man-the-millennium-bridge-gum. With Kickstarter projects you only pay if the project reaches its target amount. Ben is offering free paperback copies of the book in return for donations.
If you want to see more of Ben’s fascinating work, follow him on Instagram @benwilsonchewinggumman https://instagram.com/benwilsonchewinggumman?igshid=5jm87/ijcs264
And next time you’re in London and you cross the Millenium Bridge, just remember to look down as well as up, if you want to appreciate all the cultural richness the area has to offer.