Meet the Resident Artist of the NYC Sanitation Department


At first glance, Sto Len looks fresh out of a New York City garbage truck.

Dressed in work boots, cargo pants and a green safety vest, he shows up every day at a busy garbage truck repair shop in Queens owned by the Department of Sanitation.

He consults with mechanics, welders and painters who work on collection trucks, salt spreaders and street sweepers. Then go in search of a supply of garbage buckets or service signs.

On closer inspection, his uniform is more of a punk rock send-off than standard issue, with a trashcan-themed Ramones logo on the back of his vest and a Municipal Waste patch – signifying the thrash metal band , not a municipal agency – on the front .

Even his mug shot isn’t official: Instead of a photo, the “head shot” is a flippant caricature of Len, 43, who has spiky hair and oversized glasses.

As the Sanitation Department’s resident artist—and a familiar sight among the city’s agency depot base—Len doesn’t collect trash, but rather art ideas related to it.

Leave it up to New York to employ someone to make art about the city’s garbage collectors.

Len’s one-year position is part of the Public Artists in Residence initiative, which was created to enable artists to “address pressing civic challenges through their creative practices” and is managed by the Department of Business. cultural.

The Cultural Affairs program was inspired by Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who in 1977 began working with the Department of Sanitation as an unpaid artist-in-residence. Residencies now come with a payment of $40,000.

One of the challenges, according to a statement from the Sanitation Department, is to get New Yorkers to “reconsider their own role” in the relationship between themselves, their waste and those who dispose of it.

These are the approximately 10,000 sanitation workers who make up the largest municipal garbage hauling agency in the United States and who collect and haul more than 24 million pounds of trash and recyclables daily.

The department wants to see its employees treated with more respect: Reports of threatened or attacked employees come in about once a month, spokesman Josh Goodman said.

“Our workers are aware that many members of the public do not act as if their sanitation worker is a human being,” he said.

For Sto Len, the public has taken an “out of sight, out of mind” view of its waste.

“You take out your trash bag and it’s gone forever, but where does it go?” he said. “Most people don’t want to know.”

So he ironically created a new division within the department — OK, the office basically consists of him — called the Visibility Office. The goal: to highlight the work force.

Images of Len’s art are posted on the department’s website and on his personal Instagram account. He plans shows in sanitary facilities and organizes public lectures and workshops on the residency, which he started in September, and on creating works of art from discarded objects.

Len doesn’t rummage through New Yorkers’ trash cans for his art supplies. Instead, he uses materials from the department. He remixed film footage mothballed on the department into pieces of video collage and repurposed old templates for recycling and anti-litter posters to create his own artistic takes.

Sto Len, a pseudonym he has long used as a stage name, grew up in Virginia and has lived in New York since 2000. He has focused much of his work on environmental issues, including polluted waterways and places like the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, recycling trash into art materials and holding rallies at Superfund sites. Before taking up the position of Artist-in-Residence in New York, he completed a similar stint as Artist-in-Residence at a sewage treatment plant in Virginia.

Len spent the first few months of the Department of Sanitation program driving around collection trucks, interviewing workers, and following the trash trail from the curb to the truck to the transfer station, where the trash is loaded onto barges and trains and shipped out of town for incineration and landfill.

These days he has a daily presence at the department’s central repair shop in Queens, a gigantic factory where much of the fleet is serviced and where Len, who lives in the borough, now has two studios. to work.

“Can you imagine having such a big studio in New York,” he said last week as he stood in a room where sanitation workers once made signs reminding New Yorkers , among other things, to recycle and clean up after their dogs.

There was a pile of materials left, including an old screen printing press and shelves of templates for signs and advertising posters. Len transformed the space into his own print shop, dusting off old press and tweaking dated designs to create “No Dumping” and “Don’t Litter” posters with a tongue-in-cheek, trippy feel.

“I’m sort of collaborating with the department’s story,” he said of his psychedelic spin on traditional agency imagery. “It mixes up the visual language of sanitation.”

He made stickers changing the name of the department to Department of Mental Health because, he said, “if we didn’t have anyone to clean up, the town would be really mad.”

On the sixth floor of the repair shop, he entered a former space once used to shoot and edit training and advertising videos. Keeping the decor delightfully dated, Len recently revived it in a studio for his new SAN TV – Sanitation Art Network.

With the help of Henry Ferrante, a veteran of the department, he used antiquated video equipment to scour historic video and film footage that had been stored for decades, then digitized it for use in his video facilities.

Len also worked with department archivist Maggie Lee to collect old materials like street trash cans and befriend mechanics, painters, and welders who could help him make sculptures.

“It doesn’t get much more real than that,” he said. “It’s much more interesting hanging out in the sanitation world than in the art world.”

As he spoke, he passed garbage trucks for repair and a massive dump truck on a lift that dwarfed the mechanic below. He walked through a paint shop on the second floor with an old horse-drawn garbage cart in the corner.

At one point, Len greeted a truck mechanic, Eric Ritter, 60, who was guiding a huge tire onto a forklift. The two had met earlier when Mr. Ritter was playing his saxophone in the store at lunchtime.

Len hopes that Mr. Ritter, and several other musician-mechanics with whom he plays, will perform at one of his art openings or for a video segment.

“It’s pretty cool to have him around digging into the history of the department and exploring what we do in the shop,” Mr. Ritter said. “We’ve always been very low key here – nobody really knows what we’re doing.”

Mr. Ritter mentioned his other hobbies to Len: DJing on roller rinks and chasing land speed records in Utah’s salt marshes.

“There are so many interesting stories here,” Len said as he walked away. “Sanitation is weird and special that way.”

For Len, collecting trash is a natural subject for making art.

“The problem with litter is that everyone is connected to it,” he said. “I hope I can get people to take a closer look at the things they willfully ignore.”

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