In the past 10 years, there’s been times when I felt as gloomy as London and was walking through the city with my eyes fixed on pavement. However, when I spotted an ethereal flash of primary hue and it instantly positive and cheered me up. Those little spots of intricate brightness are the work of London’s “chewing gum artist” Ben Wilson, who since 2004 has spent most days painting playful miniatures of the millions of flattened pieces of gum that are spat across the city’s pavement stones. Each of his paintings is unique, and many are devoted to people who want to commemorate friendships, remember lost love, or simply to say “I reside here”. Although I don’t know the exact amount of these things, it’s my opinion that Wilson provides more little moments of happiness or peace to Londoners than any other artist alive.
I got talking to him in the year 2005, and he ended up doing the painting for my younger daughters. The project was kept secret with their high street friends for a long time. A few days later, they discovered that “their” paving stones had been removed and were being replaced. Since since then, Wilson has made several thousands of these photographs He keeps a photograph record of them and most of their devotees. He then revisits them and meticulously touches up the ones that were scuffed or damaged. For those who know how to find them they will be able to create an alternative path of blue (and yellow and red) plaques, which pay tribute not only to the dead but also to the variety of the city.
He softens the gum using a blowtorch, then coats it with lacquer, and the next step is to apply three coats acrylic enamel
Wilson may be visible creating his work in the event of a good chance. There are a variety of places where that he visits: the Edwardian streets close to his house in Muswell Hill, Crouch End Hackney’s old parts and the Millennium Bridge. He has also done trails of hundreds upon trails of chewing gum art, which have led to surreptitious intrusions into Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. I met Wilson who is now 58 at the beginning of last week’s morning in Muswell Hill, where he was renovating some films in front of the Everyman cinema. He was a tall , muscular man with a big smile. He was dressed in bright orange industrial overalls with paint layers. He lay flat on the pavement on a thick mat that he carried around in an rucksack, along and his equipment.
This technique is extremely precise. First, he softens the flattened shape of gum a little with a blowtorch, sprays it with lacquer after that, he applies three coats of acrylic enamel, often according to the design in his latest book of requests which come from people who stop , look down and talk. He uses small modellers’ brushes and quickly dries his work by using lighter flame. After that, he seals the painting with more varnish. Each painting can be completed in just a couple of hours, and can last for many years.
Wilson’s bizarre acts of daily creation appear more natural when the author explains. He is passionately interested in the threatened idea of public space. Technically, he is not painting commercially owned real estate or public property. He is painting gum. The images he paints are designed to create a tiny collection of common land in the city. He suggests that gum is the ultimate consumable product. It is of no nutritional value and is difficult to get rid of. “So there’s a certain symbolism in transforming something thoughtlessly spat out into something that is meaningful.”
Beyond that, Wilson is interested in smilingly illustrating an idea of a close local connection in celebration of the community. He is currently cleaning up and enhancing a photo that shows a tiny murmuration stars over Brighton Pier. “I always felt guilty about this one,” he says. “It was on my to-do list to complete however the person who requested it tragically passed away before I completed it. I had a conversation with his son at the nearby cafe, and I asked him to do it in his honor. He loved those murmurations so I decided to do it. The picture is a favorite of his.”
He meticulously cleans it and adds a bit of paint to any areas that are damaged. He then walks me through some of the other kerbsides that are located nearby. He says, “This is for Ivan the man I saw on the streets around here. He wanted Ivan The Terrible so I did this.” They walk along the road until they reach a row of shops. He cleans up a photo outside the local Ryman and reads the inscription: “This is for Nadia who was in this store.” Outside the post office, there’s the tiger to honor a postal worker who is from Sri Lanka. Wilson could write all the names of Woolworths employees on a piece gum to mark the end of Woolworths many years ago.