Chewing Gum Man’s new guerilla art project slips through the cracks on the London Underground

Ben Wilson made his name painting chewing gum on the streets of London. Image: Aliide Naylor.

It’s 10pm at St. Paul’s tube. A stocky man with dark curls, dressed in a bright orange boiler suit is entering. He is covered head-to-toe in small daubs of bright acrylic paint; a walking Seurat.

“I’ve been painting the chewing gum on Millennium Bridge!” Ben Wilson says enthusiastically. He’s had a degree of notoriety in his time; in 2011 the New York Times profiled him under the headline “Whimsical Works of Art, Found Sticking to the Sidewalk”.

The moniker “Chewing Gum Man” has, ahem, stuck. Londoners have known Wilson under this alias for over a decade now. Since starting in 2004, he provides friendly addition to the fabric of the city for Londoners, and a quaint and curious novelty for foreign tourists – rain or shine. Despite early run-ins with police, he circumvents potential problems by only painting the gum, not the surface it’s stuck to.

“When I started doing this,” he says gesturing towards the gum on the bridge, “I had court cases, and luckily I won.” He recalls a particularly unpleasant incident. “I was working outside St. Paul’s and I had my DNA taken,” he says. Wilson was put in a cell and police tried to prosecute him on obstruction charges, among others, and forcibly took his DNA – something UK officers have been able to do at the point of arrest for a recordable offence since 2003.

“One time I remember being escorted off the bridge; they took all my gear,” he says. It was just after the New York Times article was published, and the incident incurred outrage from his American fans. He credits an ombudsman by the name of Jane with getting police to cool their pursuit.

Now, local officers nod amicably at him as he paints a miniature portrait of a girl from Huntingdon, California, called Lorraine. “Hi, nice to see you!” he says, cheerfully waving to the pair, who smile back. As their footsteps fade, he adopts a lower tone. “That’s so good! See, there was a time when that wouldn’t have happened.”

Wilson puts the final touches to Lorraine’s bright blue backpack (it’s a portrait). First, he burns the gum with a miniature blowtorch, before adding a bright white base – and only then does he start adding colour to his miniature creations. “I’m just thrilled,” Lorraine enthuses as he finishes it with lacquer.  “I think that’s fantastic … I can’t even thank you enough!” A small crowd starts to amass.

But I’m not on Millennium Bridge to discuss Wilson’s much-covered usual work. For the last year-and-a-half, Wilson has been secretly planting small black-and-white painted tiles at various tube stations, dated and numbered as part of a new guerilla project. He estimates that he’s placed 300-400 in total so far.

One of Wilson’s painted tiles, which he is hiding at London tube stations. Image: Aliide Naylor


Taking the tube together, we both changed at the same station, and, after some searching, managed to locate a piece he planted several weeks beforehand. 

“It’s a funny thing doing the pictures on the Underground,” Wilson says in the bright light of day, “because it’s all hidden. You have to sneak around. You can’t be seen. Even though various guards know, various people know what I’m doing. Various members of staff like what I do and don’t tell other members of staff, because it’s a secret,” he smiles. He acknowledges the new venture could also be considered problematic.

“I use No [More] Nails [a high-strength adhesive], and then I stick them in place. Technically it’s criminal damage – but that’s all part of it,” Wilson says.

I start mulling the ethics of writing on the project.

“I don’t mind going to court,” he laughs glibly. “I feel I’m respectful. It’s something that can be removed.” He claims to be even more diligent than those who remove them.

“Occasionally, they don’t remove the adhesive from the tile it was covering, and in that case, then I scrape it off… it doesn’t actually damage the tile underneath.”  

Wilson has placed 300-400 of the tiles in the past 18 months. Image: Aliide Naylor​

The tiles sporadically disappear from stations when discovered. Wilson states with great certainty that staff at Camden Town staff are the most diligent when it comes to removing the objects. But besides some similar hints, their precise locations remain secret.

Wilson’s focus is “mainly on the Northern Line and District Line,” he says. “I’ve done two-thirds of the Northern Line, hidden among all the adverts, and different places in the underground system… there’s quite a few on the Central Line. And there’re others randomly.”

Advertising, it turns out, is a bone of contention with Wilson, and he blames it for the consumerism responsible for the litter he’s so renowned for transforming. “There’s advertising everywhere… it’s nice to be able to do something which is personal,” Wilson reflects.

“Our environment is very much controlled. The reason why there’s chewing gum everywhere is that the advertising is very successful… and the way we’ve been conditioned is the reason we have rubbish on the street.”

The tube sees some 1.37 billion passengers annually, according to TfL. In a 2016 study called The Engagement Zone undertaken by one of TfL’s advertising agencies, Exterion Media, 60 per cent of participants said advertisements provide a welcome distraction from their commute – making them prime targets.

“This audience has more money to spend and will be more likely to talk about your brand with friends or fellow commuters,” marketing company Hint Media proclaims. Such companies have also concluded that tube advertising is “unintrusive” – perhaps relative to those penetrating our engagement with tech platforms.
But Wilson mourns diminishing public land and how, despite the London Underground being a public transport system, it still sells its visual space and has restrictions that facilitate this type of consumerism.

“People are so greedy,” he says. “We had common ground, which was our ground. And when you had the beginning of enclosure [the Inclosure Acts, 1604 onwards], that was taken away from us.” He fantasises about grazing livestock, foraging and collecting firewood, and expresses wishes to have his ashes scattered in Hadley Woods.

Chewing gum is like “finding no-man’s land or common ground,” he muses. “Finding different places where things can happen in a society that becomes more and more corporate.”

I now find myself engaged in the welcome distraction of scanning for his tiles as opposed to analysing adverts on the tube. Wilson says the tiles don’t necessarily constitute adverts for his own work; the element of personal expression separates them. Plus, they have been basically secret up until now.

And would he ever paint miniature adverts himself, if asked? “I have had people wanting to advertise, actually,” he suddenly remembers with delight.  “An awareness campaign… recruiting police.” Despite having his own concerns about money, the answer was a resounding no.


How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 

CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.