An artist who has spent over a decade transforming discarded chewing gum on London’s Millennium Bridge into vibrant miniature paintings is now rallying support in an effort to save his work from being destroyed.
Widely known as “the chewing gum man,” Ben Wilson has been repurposing chewing gum as an art medium for his public work since 2004. In 2011, he began creating trails of his miniature works made out of the gum many people left behind on the floor of the popular suspension bridge connecting the southern banks of the River Thames where the Tate Modern art museum and Saint Paul’s Cathedral are located.
When City Bridge Foundation, the 900-year-old charity that owns and maintains the footbridge in addition to four other Thames crossings, announced that it would be closing the Millennium Bridge this month for three weeks of engineering maintenance and deep-cleaning, Wilson realized that his trail of hundreds of miniature paintings would be completely lost.
On October 3, Wilson launched an online petition to gather community support to save his public art. As of today, October 12, the campaign has now received more than 4,400 signatures.
“It’s actually very touching with all the support from people,” Wilson told Hyperallergic in a phone call, which he took while restoring a chewing gum artwork he had made at the request of a couple who had lost their two-year-old son to a brain tumor years ago. Every year, the couple returns to the bridge to see the artwork.
But as a result of the City Foundation’s upcoming cleaning, this work in addition to hundreds of others, including other memorials to loved ones who have passed away, will be washed away.
“These pictures, I look after them,” Wilson explained. “Some can last for years, for ten years, it can go on and on. Why just destroy them when the trail is still operating and still working? It’s a form of public art.”
Wilson began his first trail of chewing gum paintings in 2011, but this work was destroyed soon after in 2012; his second attempt has been an ongoing project since 2013. These works, which he has also brought to other areas of London and cities around the world, are available to view in his “gum gallery” on his website.
After initially deciding that all of Wilson’s artwork would be removed in the maintenance, the City Bridge Foundation has now decided to let Wilson keep 75 miniature gum paintings as a compromise.
“There are currently thousands of pieces of chewing gum on the bridge, including those which Ben has painted and many which are not painted,” a spokesperson for the charity told Hyperallergic in an email statement, explaining that the organization needs to ensure that the major London landmark is “not only structurally sound but is clear of any dirt and debris, including chewing gum, and looks clean and tidy.”
“However, we recognize the value of Ben’s art and the fact it is well-loved by many people, so in consultation with him, we have offered to let him keep a limited number of pieces of his art, which will be preserved during the maintenance work and cleaning,” the spokesperson said, adding that the organization is “working with Ben to identify which pieces are kept.”
But Wilson is concerned that despite this compromise, the foundation may still end up removing all of his work.
In his online petition, fans of his work shared the impact his chewing gum trail has had on their lives. Wilson also feels deeply connected to the community that has emerged around his miniature works.
“Ben’s work on the bridge means the world to me,” Agnese Placci wrote in a comment. “After my grandfather died, he painted a chewing-gum for me. I can find it with my eyes closed. Living far away from home, having this place in London where I can go and be with my grandfather is so important to me.”