Gum gets arty in London

The gum works (left and above) of Mr Ben Wilson, also known as "chewing gum man".
The gum works (above) of Mr Ben Wilson, also known as "chewing gum man".PHOTO: BEN WILSON/INSTAGRAM
The gum works (left and above) of Mr Ben Wilson, also known as "chewing gum man".
The gum works (above) of Mr Ben Wilson, also known as "chewing gum man".PHOTO: BEN WILSON/INSTAGRAM

Englishman Ben Wilson turns discarded chewing gum into artworks by painting on them

LONDON • Lying on a footbridge spanning London's River Thames, Mr Ben Wilson finalises his latest creation: a miniature painting on chewing gum, stuck to the steel structure.

The 57-year-old Englishman has toured the British capital for the past 15 years sculpting and repainting scraps of gum discarded by passers-by. But it is not just an eccentric hobby.

"I'm transforming the rubbish and making it into a form of art, so that's a form of recycling," he said on a sunny morning on the Millennium Bridge in the shadow of St Paul's Cathedral.

"(It) is taking a thoughtless action and trying to transform it hopefully into something positive," he added, brush in hand.

Mr Wilson's colourful creations, barely bigger than a small coin, can be found all along the pedestrian bridge and in the surrounding area.

They are easy to miss unless passers-by look closely.

Many are miniature representations of the famous cathedral nearby, while others are vivid - almost psychedelic - drawings, often signed and dated.

Originally from north London, Mr Wilson started out carving wood, before turning to chewing gum.

Over the years, his unusual hobby has earned him the nickname "chewing gum man" - a moniker he has fully embraced.

His procedure is now well established. He will spot old gum stuck to steps, streets and other parts of the urban landscape. Then, out comes his equipment: an old paint-stained blanket to sit on; bottles of acrylic paints and varnish; a burner to melt the gum; and, of course, a brush.

He is careful to avoid painting on the actual bridge or other surface, in case he is accused of vandalism by the authorities.

"The person who spat out the gum is the person that created the criminal damage," he noted. "It's sad, really, the impact humans have on their environment, the amount of rubbish we create."

Pedestrians, some used to the regular sight of Mr Wilson working in his paint-flecked jacket, engage with him, asking questions or sometimes taking photos.

He estimates he has painted "thousands and thousands" of pieces of gum, and prides himself on having produced his "hidden art" across central London.

He collaborates with galleries and other artists for some income and refuses any money offered to sign people's pieces of gum.

"It's nice to actually create something which evolves out of the environment rather than being imposed on the environment," he said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2020, with the headline 'Gum gets arty in London'. Print Edition | Subscribe