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.

 
 
 
 

Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.

 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.


There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.