Behold a Secret Gallery of Art Created Using Discarded Gum on London’s Millennium Bridge

Through­out his­to­ry, deter­mined artists have worked on avail­able sur­faces — scrap wood, card­board, walls…

Ben Wil­son has cre­at­ed thou­sands of works using chew­ing gum as his can­vas.

Specif­i­cal­ly, chew­ing gum spat out by care­less strangers.

His work has become a defin­ing fea­tur­ing of London’s Mil­len­ni­um Bridge, a mod­ern struc­ture span­ning the Thames, and con­nect­ing such South Bank attrac­tions as Tate Mod­ern and the Shake­speare’s Globe with St. Paul’s Cathe­dral to the north.

A 2021 pro­file in The Guardian doc­u­ments the cre­ation process:

The tech­nique is very pre­cise. He first soft­ens the oval of flat­tened gum a lit­tle with a blow­torch, sprays it with lac­quer and then applies three coats of acrylic enam­el, usu­al­ly to a design from his lat­est book of requests that come from peo­ple who stop and crouch and talk. He uses tiny mod­el­ers’ brush­es, quick-dry­ing his work with a lighter flame as he goes along, and then seals it with more lac­quer. Each paint­ing takes a few hours and can last for many years.

Unsur­pris­ing­ly, Wil­son works very, very small.

For every Mil­len­ni­um Bridge pedes­tri­an who’s hip to the ever-evolv­ing solo exhi­bi­tion under­foot, there are sev­er­al hun­dred who remain com­plete­ly obliv­i­ous.

Stoop to admire a minia­ture por­trait, abstract, or com­mem­o­ra­tive work, and the bulk of your fel­low pedes­tri­ans will give you a wide berth, though every now and then a con­cerned or curi­ous par­ty will stop to see what the deal is.

Wil­son, who works sprawled on the bridge’s met­al treads, his nose close to touch­ing his tiny, untra­di­tion­al can­vas, receives a sim­i­lar response, as described in Zachary Den­man’s short doc­u­men­tary, Chew­ing Gum Man:

They make think I’ve fall­en over and they may think I’ve had a car­diac arrest or some­thing, so I’ve had lots of ambu­lances turn­ing up…I’ve had loads of police.

His sub­jects are sug­gest­ed by the shape of the spat out gum, by friends, by strangers who stop to watch him work:

I’ve had to deal with peo­ple memo­ri­al­iz­ing peo­ple who have been mur­dered. Peo­ple who have been so lone­ly, or remem­ber­ing favorite pets; peo­ple who are des­ti­tute in all sorts of ways. It goes from pro­pos­al pic­tures, ‘Will you mar­ry me?’, to peo­ple who I drew when they were kids and they now have their own kids.

Like any street artist, Wilson’s had his share of run ins with the law, includ­ing a wrong­ful 2010 arrest for crim­i­nal dam­age, when a crowd of school­child­ren who’d been enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly watch­ing an itty bit­ty St. Pauls tak­ing shape on a blob of gum wit­nessed him being dragged off by his feet. (He asked if he could fin­ish the pic­ture first…)

He may not get per­mis­sion to cre­ate the pub­lic works he goes out dai­ly to cre­ate, but he con­tributes by clear­ing the area of lit­ter, and as he points out, paint­ing on dis­card­ed gum doesn’t con­sti­tute defac­ing anyone’s actu­al prop­er­ty:

Tech­ni­cal­ly in one sense, I’m work­ing with­in the law …if I paint on chew­ing gum, it’s like find­ing No Man’s Land or com­mon ground. It’s a space which is not under the juris­dic­tion of a local or nation­al gov­ern­ment.

See more of Ben Wilson’s work in his online Gum Gallery.

Pho­tos in this arti­cle tak­en by Ayun Hal­l­i­day, 2022. All rights reserved.

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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