Local authorities may have declared war on discarded chewing gum, but Ben Wilson takes a more artistic approach to the scourge of sticky blobs. Wendy Wallace met him
Ben Wilson is turning chewing gum - the scourge of headteachers and school caretakers - into a thing of beauty. Mr Wilson, 42, can be spotted lying on the pavements of north London in his trademark fluorescent jacket and paint-smeared orange trousers, creating miniature paintings on discarded blobs of Wrigley's.
After experimenting with his unorthodox canvases for a year or so, the artist began working full time on them last October and has now executed more than 1,000 "gum paintings" in the boroughs of Barnet and Haringey, all recorded on the digital camera he keeps in a back pocket. He has painted everything from national flags, burgers and love messages to nudes and graffiti artists' tags in his very own form of modern urban folk art, and aims to make a trail of paintings from Barnet to the centre of the capital.
Children are the most enthusiastic fans of Mr Wilson's work, and provide much of his subject matter and inspiration. "They know me, trust me," he says. "I'm the chewing gum man." They commission images from him, often drawing designs in his notebook to show what they want. "I let them lead, unless I see they need some direction. I'm always excited by what they bring," he says.
Ben Wilson believes the ubiquity of discarded gum shows our "lack of awareness of the effects of what we do". He says that personal responsibility for the environment comes from people being able to express themselves in it, and points out the monopoly that advertisers have on public imagery. Chewing gum canvases, he says, "bypass bureaucracy". "You can have any image, anywhere, going in any direction. I love the fact that people notice something so small."
Despite financial hardship, he has not sought grants for his work, preferring the artistic freedom that comes with being outside the fold. "If you give a person space, physical and mental, they can work in a way that's not preconceived or contrived," he says.
THE BEN WILSON METHOD
Select old gum on pavement
Melt with blow torch to harden gum
Add layer of white acrylic enamel
Create design and paint with acrylic enamels
Use BBQ lighter with gentle heat to dry paint, get clarity of line and avoid dust
Apply enamel spray or clear car spray to provide hard finish
Apply light heat from blow torch to dry and harden
Photograph close-up with digital camera as a record of the work
Final artworks can last six months or more, depending on location
Councils in London and elsewhere have joined forces to draw attention to the "expensive mess" created by discarded chewing gum and to put pressure on manufacturers such as Wrigley's. While they're looking for financial support for the "enormous clean-up bill", they also suggest "proper investment in developing bio-degradable or non-stick gum".
Twenty councils, from Belfast to Westminster, took out a full-page advertisement in the Guardian last month headed: "Don't let them wriggle out of it". While a stick of chewing gum costs 3p to buy, it costs 10p to remove from the streets, says the campaign literature, with nine out of 10 city paving stones affected.
Alan Bradley, council member for street environment at Westminster, reckons "it's one of the most intractable cleaning problems we've got".
Westminster, which covers Downing Street and Trafalgar Square, spends Pounds 100,000 a year on removing gum from its streets. Mr Bradley is calling for a public education campaign to make dropping gum as unacceptable as allowing your dog to foul the streets.
But he's nonplussed by the idea of chewing gum art. "I should have thought the important thing was to remove it, not paint it. But I haven't seen the work, so I can't comment."