‘Hi there, do you do requests?’ I ask the man lying on his side outside the bakery. He introduces himself as Ben – but of course I knew that, I’d seen the Chewing Gum Artist for years around Muswell Hill, intricately painting the tiny spontaneous canvases with bright acrylic paints. Ben takes out a scrappy notebook and flips open a new page, handing it to me. Feeling immensely humbled, I start to sketch out two figures and write the date of my sister’s wedding across the top. As I hand the notebook back, Ben starts to tell me more about his experiences as an artist.
Ben’s been painting chewing gum for seven and a half years now, and says another main passion is carpentry, which has seen him travel across the world to Finland and the US. Ben has branched out into canvas work as well, with a recent exhibition of chewing gum pieces in the Tate as part of the Hidden Trails exhibition. ‘I melted the chewing gum into some foil and blu-taked it to the walls. I wanted to see if people would notice them if I painted on a realistic spider or stuck them on ledges.’ Ben explains his infatuation with art is born out of a compulsion to depict the stories of those around him, ‘it’s a passion for colours, and just life really’. As we talk, I watch Ben outline a design of a lilac background with an intensely detailed slice of cake in the middle and ‘Lillian’ painted above.
This is despite some road bumps along the way, ‘I’ve spoken with thousands of police officers’ he grins. As I take a seat on the pavement beside his dozens of paint pots, I find myself involved in a tale of Ben’s misadventures with the immigration staff at the US border. We actually talk for quite a while about this – which is weird because I remember asking about the most commission he’d ever taken on a chewing gum request. But as we talk, I notice how open and intriguing a person he is, and how much a necessity his artwork was for him. It wasn’t something he had to push himself to do, but rather a compulsion that literally knew no borders. And did his detention under the immigration authorities have an effect on his art? Most definitely: in 2003, Ben created a series of ‘darker’ works reflecting his experiences. ‘It felt so dehumanising, I didn’t realise I would be kept in solitary confinement’
As he’s developed as an artist, Ben reiterates the ‘responsibility’ he feels he has to stay true to his art form. As a street artist, he’s clearly all about interacting with the community, because his artwork is influenced so heavily by the people around him. ‘At first it was the homeless people, then the drunks and school kids who got interested in my paintings. Then the rich people – and I find myself painting chewing gum in Highgate’. His popularity is evident as we’re interrupted by passers-by who address him by name. An elderly Italian man exclaims that this guy is really ‘the best’, and Ben’s genuine humility is evident from his bashful response.
And how long do these miniature masterpieces take? He nods at my childish scrawl, ‘yours will probably take around 4 hours’, he estimates. I’m tempted to feel guilty at exploiting Ben’s creative spirit, but actually I can see that he takes inspiration from the community around him. I look forward to spotting his paintings on the streets of my neighbourhood.
By Sabrina Dougall
Images from: telgraph.co.uk; Wallflowerdispatches.com;