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.
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.”
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.