By Gum! Artist Ben Wilson talks to MyMuswell
By MyMuswell Team on 8 December 2011
Most people know Ben Wilson as the hunched up, splodge-covered rain-jacketed man who spends his days transforming Muswell Hill’s discarded chewing gum into finely crafted works of art. We tracked him down to find out more about his passion, where he draws inspiration from and the dangers of being the ‘chewing gum guy’ …
Hello Ben. Do you live locally?
I’ve lived in Muswell Hill for eighteen years since my daughter was three and a half years old.
Why did you end up settling in Muswell Hill?
An opportunity for a flat came up with a really big garden. I’m a wood sculptor too, you see. That may explain why I like Muswell Hill, because it’s got woods - Highgate Woods, wood walks - it’s a good working environment, where the children can explore and play.
We love your chewing gums - can you tell us how you actually do it?
First of all I heat up the gum with a burner, then, when it’s heating and bubbling I spray the lacquer straight into it. Then, I smooth it with my finger. Then, you heat it up again and spray more lacquer in and that kind of stabilizes the gum . Then I paint.
All this means the finished piece stays solid, can be walked on, rained on – it’s more like, I say, an invention, than an illustration. And it’s technically not criminal damage.
Is that true – it’s not criminal damage?
Technically, it’s not criminal damage because it’s not on the pavement. And the important thing is – this is crucial - if someone doesn’t like a picture they can just remove it. It’s a really important part of what I do.
What inspires each image?
I travel all over London. All over. I get involved in different areas, like really involved with the people and community,getting to know them. Gradually, the locals start coming up to me and requesting pictures which relate to them in some way. That’s what I paint.
So all your pictures are inspired by local people?
Yep. If I knew what I was going to do everyday it would be boring. That’s part of what I love – the fact that someone random comes up to me and asks me to paint something for them totally unexpectedly. That’s what is exciting.
And what is your work trying to achieve?
When I worked in the woodland environment, as a wood sculptor, I tried to work with the material around me to create a piece that had relevance and context in its surroundings.
This is also what I’m doing in my chewing gum pictures. It’s an image which has a context within the environment in which it’s created. In as much as, if someone comes up to me and wants me to paint a picture that is something to do with their personal life, then that picture has a story, a context, related directly to the environment in which it’s created.
And is there a greater artistic vision at work?
I’m not going to be down in anyway, but advertising has a monopoly over public space …I’m trying to offer a balance.
In the past, big business didn’t have such a monopoly over public space. Now they are in control of all of the images occupying our environment. Images can be anything - they can be to do with people, they can be alive and spontaneous; unlike the images advertisers use, that are all very controlling and all have a very specific agenda, setting out to make people buy their products.
How many chewing gum artworks are there in Muswell Hill?
There are a lot of pictures in Muswell Hill. And lots that are hidden, waiting to be found. They’re not just in the high street. They're in a lot of different places. What’s nice is, if you find a lot of pictures in one area, it means the people in the area are nice - I wouldn’t do that many pictures if the people weren’t nice.
But for all the pictures I’ve done for people, there’s all the pictures I haven’t too.
Go on …
Well I have these request books – loads of request books - that are filled with chewing gum artwork people have asked for. They draw what they want in them, tell me why they want it and I try to interpret it.
How do you decide which requests to follow-through with?
No,no,no – there’s no yes or no. I do it if I can. The dilemma is, I’m only one person and if it was more than one artist it wouldn’t be the same. It’s sad, because for everyone that I’ve made happy, there’s the same amount or more that I make unhappy because of what I’m not doing. I have to carry that round with me and it’s a heavy burden.
Have you ever refused a request?
There is a cut off point. I wouldn’t do weaponry or insults, stuff like ‘You’re a wanker’. I have to take personal responsibility for what’s being created.
Have you ever caused trouble with a chewing gum peice?
There was one occasion, one time in Barnet. Some girls lied to me when they requested something. I’d gone through the whole of Barnet high street, got to know the people and decided to do some pictures for some school kids from QE girls. They asked for some kind of love triangle. They said something like ‘Oh we both fancy the same boy’.
The next thing I knew, days later, I had some constable giving me a warning. Saying - ‘There’s offensive graffiti here and I’ve been told to remove it. You’re now being recorded by camera. We want you to stop working here.’
Then, the next thing I knew I had the headmistress of QE girls storming along telling me ‘the girls are really upset, the parents were upset’. All these people were upset because of this love triangle thing. I never got to the bottom of it but there was something they weren’t telling me.
Are there any other dangers that come with the job?
I have been physically attacked before.
Really – where?
In the Seven Dials, Covent Garden, by this man in a suit. I was crouched, being neat with all my paints, then this guy comes past, smart guy, and gives me a really hard kick in the sides. I couldn’t believe it actually. I was in shock. I think he thought I was a homeless guy.
I lay there for a bit in pain, then came to my senses and saw this guy swaggering up the road with all his mates. So, I got my camera out and chased him with my camera, saying ‘why did you kick me? I’m an artist’. I was photographing him, click, click. His mate was going ‘it wasn’t me it wasn’t me’ and the guy was cupping his hands over his face and cringing. I felt a bit sorry for him in the end.
That’s horrible. And finally, what have you learnt from your art?
My pictures are about people and their lives. And the interesting thing is, people are always thinking about other people.