Look well, next time you’re out in London, and you’ll see that the streets are covered in pale splats that look like bird droppings. In fact they’re the remains of people’s spat-out and trampled-on chewing gum. London councils spend more than £4 million a year trying and failing to clean gum off their pavements. They’ve tried high pressure steam guns, and chemicals of all sorts, but nothing works. They’ve begged chewing gum manufacturers to change their recipe, and been told it’s impossible. They’ve cajoled the masticating public with ”gum targets” stuck on lamp posts (a truly revolting idea), and threatened them with fines. All to no avail.
It takes a certain kind of genius to see people’s spat-out globs of chewing gum as the means of beautifying a city. Artist Ben Wilson is that sort of genius. Where others see streets splattered with gummy eyesores, Ben sees thousands of tiny canvases.
“Lots of people have created the chewing gum, on the pavement, and I thought I can work with the gum.”
Sitting in his favourite Muswell Hill cafe, he envisaged small jewel-like paintings, like badges, that would glow on the pavements, mystify passers by, and celebrate the lives of the people who used the streets.
Unlike grafitti artists, he could paint his little masterpieces openly. “If I were to paint on walls or the pavement itself, I’d be breaking the law, but they can’t accuse me of causing criminal damage because the criminal damage has already been done, by the gum . . . I paint on chewing gum because I can’t be arrested, and there isn’t a plaque next to it telling you what it is and why it’s there, so people can create anything in their own imagination.”
Ben’s works are dotted all over London. Several can be found outside the Royal Academy. The Royal Society of Chemistry recently asked him to paint depictions of each of the 118 known chemical elements.
He also takes commissions from people in the street, who live or work nearby and includes their names and short messages. A picture can take anything from two hours to three days to complete. Each one is photographed and catalogued.
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