Three tiny multi-coloured paintings on ridged metal surface
London,  Photographing Public Art,  Street art

Gallery: the Chewing Gum Man

Artist Ben Wilson is the ‘Chewing Gum Man’. While he has produced many other artworks, it is his minute and detailed creations on discarded blobs of chewing gum that have brought him fame. And one of the best places to see them is on London’s Millennium Bridge.

Ben’s technique involves using a blowtorch to harden the gum, before applying layers of acrylic paint and lacquer to create these miniature works of art waiting to be discovered under our feet.

By painting only on to the gum he ensures that his work can’t be regarded as vandalism. No public property is damaged through his intervention; it is the original discarder of the gum who is the vandal.

Thousands of people cross this bridge every day, many of them on their way to the huge Tate Modern art gallery on the south side of the Thames. There are wonderful views of the river, the city, and nearby St Paul’s Cathedral.

People walking across a bridge with a city skyline beyond
On the Millennium Bridge
Cathedral with large dome
View of St Paul’s Cathedral as you come off the bridge

But how many of these people know to look down too, and see the tiny artworks underfoot?

Tiny multi-coloured painting on ridged metal surface and black shoe
The foot helps to illustrate the scale of these artworks

Apparently if you come across him at work he will take requests, creating a special piece to commemorate an anniversary, a birthday or the loss of a loved one. His is truly public art, subverting the authorities and the formal art world by focusing on something that the rest of the world would throw away without thought.

His work can be found elsewhere (in particular in Muswell Hill in North London, where he lives); but there’s a unique quality to the Millennium Bridge pieces as the ridges on the bridge both constrain and inspire his designs. In addition, their proximity to the great collections of Tate Modern gives them an added anti-establishment spark!

I’m sharing a selection of photos of his work there for this week’s Photographing Public Art challenge. When looking at them please bear in mind the scale, as demonstrated in my photo above. And as always, you can click on any photo to open a slideshow. It’s particularly worth doing for these images as you’ll almost certainly spot a detail you’d otherwise have missed. I love the tiny black and white cat on one and green duck on another!

These photos were taken on two separate visits to the bridge in May and July 2021

22 Comments

  • Suzanne@PictureRetirement

    The couple of times that I have walked that bridge, I was so awestruck by my surroundings that I never looked down. Rule #1 of photography – the obvious is right in front of us, but the extraordinary may be up, down, or looking back. Thanks for the reminder to SEE the details.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I’m sure you’re not alone in that! And I totally agree with that important rule of photography. I’ve heard people claim that if you’re busy taking photos you forget to really look at what is in front of you, but I find the opposite – if I have my camera with me I’m far more likely to look around carefully to see what possibilities there are 🙂

  • rosalieann37

    When I read the intro I thought it sounded disgusting. And I still think the people throwing away gum on the street is disgusting. His transformations are charming, but the idea that it is chewed gum still makes me nauseated.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I do know what you mean Rosalie, I don’t like to think of that much myself, but when I start to study the individual works I get caught up in them and forget what they are painted on!

  • margaret21

    I haven’t been to London in quite a while, even though my son and his family live there. I’ll certainly be trailing the Chewing Gum man when I finally get there. Fascinating stuff.

  • leightontravels

    I find it very charming I must say. Thanks for bringing this to my attention, I wasn’t aware of this artwork. Which is further evidence of how far I’ve drifted from my home city after so many years living abroad. Millennium Bridge is now firmly on the list for the next visit.

  • Marsha Ingrao

    Wow, Sarah. What a vision to do something like this and turn the grimiest trash into something fun. I had to look a few times to find the cat. I can’t imagine painting it when I can barely find it magnified many times over. This is an amazing find for PPAC, Sarah.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Glad you liked these Marsha 🙂 Yes, it’s really super to see something as ugly as discarded gum turned into a work of art 🙂 In an ideal world nobody would drop their gum on the ground – but then, we wouldn’t have Ben’s art to admire!

  • bitaboutbritain

    I don’t know how many times I have crossed that bridge, but i have never noticed Ben’s work. When I first started reading your aricle, I confess that I asked myself, “What twaddle is this?” – but I have to say that it is amusing and makes a good point. Well done, Ben!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      You’d be amazed how many people don’t notice them, but they are very small. When I went to take photos for this post there were so many people stopping to see what I was doing and then noticing the works as a result. There was an interesting documentary about Ben recently, I think on Sky Arts.

  • Pat

    These are wonderful! Thank you so much for brightening my day. It has been a stressful week and now I’m all better. 🙂

  • SandyL

    Now that’s unusual. I’ve not heard of this before. To clarify — he starts with pieces of discarded gum on the floor and then composes his pictures in situ? Or does he collect discarded gum, assemble & paint it else where and then puts it back ? Either way implies a very unique approach.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      He works on the gum in situ, where it has been discarded and flattened by people walking over it. He sprays it to harden it, then paints there on the ground where it is. He does also paint miniatures on small tiles in his studio I believe, but this is what he most famous for 🙂

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