I like to say to people: “ you are already there, just by who you are” in my view they don’t need to be anything. They are an important person just by the fact of being born”.
Ben Wilson is a London based artist who creates tiny works of art by painting onto chewing gum stuck to the pavement. Is it street art is it environmental art is it…. ? I had to find out and found an artist who is original, modest, down to earth and principally defies categorization. Ben’s early career involved making wooden sculptures of which The Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore houses a piece in the shape of a wedding altar at the Meditation Chapel in Wildflower Garden.
Check it out here. http://www.avam.org/stuff/inmuseum.html
Years later Ben started experimenting with occasional chewing-gum paintings in 1998, and in October 2004 began working on them full time, with the intention of creating a trail from Barnet (North London) all the way to the centre of London. Five years later he is still at it no longer is he called the woodman but now he is known as the chewing gum man. I checked on his progress. and met with Ben outside the Café in Muswell Hill. He was instantly recognisable in his paint spattered overalls and heavily filled rucksack and gear. Once inside we sat down to coffee and I started by asked Ben about his working schedule.
“I work Monday to Friday and if I am in the centre of town and I have my gear on me I will do a picture at any time. I can work anywhere”. I no longer work in Barnet they took up the paving slabs to resurface the pavement and a lot of my work was thrown away, but I have covered most of North London by now.
How long do you take over a picture?
It depends what it is, and is determined by the nature of the picture if it is really detailed it could be a couple of days. I then photograph the work and the people for whom I made it as an element for of my work and for my own record.
Some people collect images of my work, but that has nothing to do with me.
How do you choose which image to make?
There is any number of variable reasons for doing a piece. Sometimes the image will come from me; sometimes people come to me with a request.
Somebody’s friend may have died, or has been run over by a car, in which case the work becomes commemorative.
What happens to the work once you have finished it?
I am looking after individual works all the time. Some of them I rub out others I rework. If the picture is sitting in a happy place year in and year out I leave them, or I may give it a re-spray. There are still some going back to 2005, which I maintain.
How many of them are there?
Uh, about 10 000, they are not all on the pavement. They could be on someone’s door or in someone’s house or garden. The majority are on the pavement. Generally speaking I am working on the pavement.
Do you remember most of them having made them?
I remember a lot of pictures and unbelievable situations ….I have been through a lot.
What is the most serious situation you have dealt with?
Well, People have been killed or died and it may not be a nice death. If I am working in an area where someone has been stabbed, then you know, I can get involved in the situation quite randomly. For example a neighbour of this boy came up to me and asked me to do a picture for them. I then went into the area where the boy had been. People gave me information about that boy, his nickname and where he used to hang out. Then I go and do a picture in that place, where I usually will meet other kids who knew him. Then I meet a neighbour who sees what I am doing and then I meet the police who come over and ask me about what I am doing.
I then explain that I am doing a picture for this boy. And then you see it can get a bit complicated. Most of all I don’t want to be intrusive in a situation and so I try and deal with each situation as responsibly as I can.
Sometimes I am asked to write love messages, so you see, it could be any number of things and the unexpected is an exciting part of my day.
So with every picture there is a story?
No not necessarily, but at the moment the way my work has naturally evolved into a vehicle that could take any number of direction and it depends how I am focused.
Did you start out with this idea?
No, I was quite happy doing pictures for myself, I was not trying to do pictures for people. Obviously I care for people and the different environments I work in.
I started originally in Barnet with the idea that I was going to do a trail of pictures going all the way into the centre of town. So I started gradually working my way up the high street and I was just amazed at how people responded.
Well how, positive or negative?
Yes positive and really excited. You get the odd really dry person but generally people of all ages were really excited, and in particular the graffiti gang were great because they understood what I was doing. When I first started I was confronting norms and what is acceptable behaviour, it is interesting to get the reaction from people who understand. The police get very confused but generally speaking the reaction is positive.
How come you choose to be an artist?
Every day I am faced with the reality of going into an unknown area, and then slowly through natural progression one has come to something and working years in the outside environment begins to pay off. My father was an artist, so art has always been in my general mindset.
Can you make a living?
It is getting easier and I can get by. The work is spreading, and yes the issue of money keeps coming up.
I have a family and 3 children with all the responsibilities that it brings. I give my children and demonstration of personal creativity, and I think that stands for something. You know people get by, I m not doing it in a way, where I am focused on money, but people will give donations. It is getting a little bit easier, it has been pretty hard. People are always asking me to do things all the time and I have to just go where my heart leads me and that is how I work.
Have you done other work also?
It was really funny when at first I was signing on for 3 years.
I would go into the office and they would say, so how is the job search going and I would say, I am a chewing gum artist. I got to know all the people in the office and they would come up and say, will you do me a picture of an escapee because I really hate working here. And then they would put me onto those schemes. So when filling in forms I would put down I am a chewing gum artist. So they said: no you can’t put that down. And I would say, yes I can. And I would have an argument or discussion and in the end they agreed. And I had to make statements that I had been looking for work as a chewing gum artist.
So do you stay in your area?
Yes, most of the time. I worked in Barnet and Archway where I used to sign on and Tottenham where I had to go to this “back to work thing”. So several times I would do pictures in that area. I do pictures on the millennium bridge I can work in those areas now because of what I have gone through.
The police have picked you up a lot.
I am quite a heavy weight now and it is harder for them to touch me now.
Why is that?
Because they tried and they failed. But it was not easy.
I read somewhere that you had 5000 incidences with the police?
Yes, you know police are always questioning me, but they get to know you in different areas and once they know you they tend to leave you alone.
It’s just down to the individual in the end.
The individual Police Man?
Yes because it is all determined by and how this individual interprets the situation.
There are community officers who are really caring; there are good police men and bad policemen. I meet hundreds of policemen and have made work for some. But also I have been beaten up and punched around the room by City London Policemen all because I did not want to give my DNA. The man who took my fingerprints was a nice bloke and I even remember his name was Aidon. So it is all determined by how this individual interprets the situation. Brutal incidents happen because of a centralised system that is out of touch with people and the individual. Funnily I am doing something not unlike to the properties of DNA because I am recording people’s lives. By now I know the dangers but also I know what miracles people are capable of if given the space.
Do you think street art should be legal?
I mean the law is there for a reason and the law is relatively quite a fair law, as it goes, You don’t want to damage public property. More importantly people need to communicate with each other.
The kind of work I do allows me to communicate with people all the time and I take into consideration personal space while recording local history. Because I have spent my time working outside, I understand impact. There are a lot of pictures in this area and sometimes I worry whether there are too many. But the nice thing is that all the small children love them they are all looking after them.
Is there a particular trail?
No, the people, not me, normally place the pictures.
What is happening is that I am more of an instigator basically where you find a lot of pictures is where a lot of people have asked for them.
Do you think you are inspiring other people to follow in your footsteps?
I don’t know, but I get plenty of kids come up to me and say, I want to be a chewing gum artist when I grow up. (Laugh)
People come up to me, but I can’t say how much I inspire them, but I hope to promote creative thinking in one’s immediate environment and I have found my way of doing it. And the more people can respond in a creative way the better.
It is gods given right after all.
So would you call yourself more of an environmental artist rather than a street artist?
I would not call myself either. People call me what they want. I just am what I am.
What do you think of street art?
Well I am doing something, which is pretty different. I am not sneaking around at night. Although sometimes over the years I have done that. But in a different way. When I was 16 years old I used to go into a wood and build something in a wood. I would not have permission but I would go to a place a real hidden place and just make something, and I did that for years and it was in a way more expansive than what I am doing now but with similar intentions.
Chewing gum art I have been doing for 4 and half years only. Art making evolves you see, people kind of knew me as the woodman before. Outside of England and London I have done pieces in America, Finland, Germany and Australia and in terms of working out on the street, I used to paint pictures on billboards.
You have always worked in the street?
I have always worked in a direct way; I have worked in forests, in my back garden,
In college grounds and schools.
You would not show in a gallery?
I have been in a gallery and different spaces have different pros and cons. I don’t have a preference. As time goes by I may have made statements contrary to that. But I have worked in Galleries and I have worked in Museums but it is neither here nor there. I don’t work for impact, I just respond to different situations as they occur, I did not intend for this to happen. I work with people on a day-to-day basis.
Can you foresee your working practise changing?
Oh, it will change because everything does; it is changing all the time.
Who are your favourite artists?
Oh, lots of different artists. Van Gogh, I do really love him. I really like the way he painted people like for example the Postman. I like many artists but pictures have to do with people and people’s lives and actually, I mean with Van Gogh it is the documentation that goes with it that is so interesting. The letters he wrote illustrating how different people live their lives.
So you are more interested in the people?
I like to say to people: “ you are already there, just by who you are” in my view they don’t need to be anything. They are an important person just by the fact of being born.
Each person has their own personal responsibility and each person has a huge impact on their surrounding environment just by being that they are.
It’s a pity that we have organisations and multi nationals that will promote a few people at the expense of others, be that a record label or a big gallery like Saatchi & Saatchi. I have all kinds of people coming to me and I wont play that game.
I think it is important to realise the fact that individuals who are promoted at the expense of everyone else may result in others thinking that they have less responsibility. It is because of that people get stabbed, or they rubbish the pavement.
So do you feel you are reconnecting people with their environment?
No that would be presumptuous I take everything on a day-to-day basis the nitty and gritty of the every day. . But what I have noticed is human hair that blows around in balls and it collects up dust and bits of rubbish and old rizzla’s and every so often you see it rolling about. I call it urban tumbleweed. When people say, oh I have no effect; I can tell them that they do so without realising. It and I think that is quite an important realisation.
Why do you choose to work with Chewing gum?
Chewing gum on the pavement is there, because people have spat it out onto the pavement so everyone has created that. I don’t find it particularly offensive it is organic material, it shows that people don’t realise the effect they have, but it is out there and it’s amazing how it is everywhere. And it means that people can create anything so the more people realise the kind of impact they have the more they become aware of the kind of environment we live in. In my view the general sense of neglect in certain areas comes from people feeling disconnected. So in my work I try to acknowledge and work with people and their environment.
How would you classify your work?
People are all protective in their own way and I am out to make art that has this statement:’ It just is what it is, and it means different things to different people’.
I get excited when someone comes up and I see in their expression that they are exited or are moved in some way. If I see that, then I know that things are moving in a positive direction, and I feel that I have stumbled on something where I can give something to other people.
At this point in the conversation, Ben starts to unwrap some of the folders he is carrying and shows me pictures of his work and many small notes books dating back to 2004 with requests, sketches and people’s stories which he has promised to record.
He continues with: “I get so many requests and I can’t do them all at once. Tagers come up to me and ask for me to do their tag. I don’t know why but they understand what I am about”. There was a girl offering me £2.50 for a picture. In one way it is a joke but in an other way £ 2.50 is a lot of money for her. So you see it is all relative. There are a lots more photographs, sometimes the same people at different stages in their lives, he knows all of their stories.
What did you think of the Street Exhibition at the Tate in 2008?
I was there doing a picture and all the officials came and they tried to move me on. I was there with a South Korean Film maker who was making a film about me doing a memorial piece in the aftermath of the burning of the South Gateway. I originally wanted to do this at St. Pails but police had moved us on from there. So I decided to do it at the Tate. I had to do it in a certain time and I felt lucky I was able to be immediate in my response to the request. I was able to make a link between the two countries. Making links is what it is all about, I have gotten to know so many people.