At first glance, Sto Len looks fresh off a New York City garbage truck.
Dressed in a work boots, cargo pants and a green-trimmed safety vest, he reports each day to a bustling garbage truck repair shop in Queens that belongs to the Sanitation Department.
He consults with mechanics, welders and painters who work on collection trucks, salt spreaders and street sweepers. Then it’s off to look for a stash of street-trash pails or department signs.
On closer inspection, his uniform is more punk rock sendup than standard issue, with a trash-can-themed Ramones logo on the back of his vest and a Municipal Waste patch — signifying the thrash metal band, not a city agency — on the front.
Even his photo ID is unofficial: Instead of a photo, the “head shot” is a jaunty caricature of Len, 43, who has spiky hair and wears oversize glasses.
Len found an old slik-screening press in the department’s central repair shop and has used to create sanitation-themed posters with an ironic, trippy feel.Credit…An Rong Xu for The New York Times
As the Sanitation Department’s resident artist — and a familiar sight among the rank-and-file at agency depots around the city — Len does not collect the trash, but rather artistic ideas related to it.
Leave it to New York to employ someone to make art about the city’s trash collectors.
Len’s yearlong position is part of the Public Artists in Residence initiative, which was created to have artists “address urgent civic challenges through their creative practices” and is run by the Cultural Affairs Department.
The cultural affairs program was inspired by Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who in 1977 began embedding with the Sanitation Department as an unpaid artist-in-residence. The residencies now come with a $40,000 payment.
One challenge, according to a Sanitation Department news release, is to get New Yorkers to “reconsider their own role” in the relationship between them, their trash and those who make it disappear.
The latter are the roughly 10,000 sanitation workers who make up the largest municipal trash-hauling agency in the United States and who collect and transport more than 24 million pounds of garbage and recyclables daily.
“I’m kind of collaborating with the history of the department,” Len said of his psychedelic spin on traditional agency imagery.Credit…An Rong Xu for The New York Times
The department wants to see its workers treated with more respect: Reports about employees being threatened or attacked come in about once a month, a spokesman, Josh Goodman, said.
“Our workers are aware that many members of the public don’t act like their sanitation worker is a human being,” he said.
To Sto Len, the public has adopted an “out of sight, out of mind” view of their trash.
“You put your trash bag out and it’s gone forever, but where does it go?” he said. “Most people don’t want to know.”
So he wryly created a new division within the department — OK, the office basically consists of him — called the Office of In Visibility. The goal: to highlight to the work force.
Images of Len’s art are posted on the department’s website and on his personal Instagram account. He has plans for shows at sanitation facilities and conducts public talks and workshops about the residency, which he began in September, and about making art from discarded items.
Len does not rummage through New Yorkers’ trash for his art supplies. Instead, he uses department materials. He remixed mothballed film footage about the department into video-collage pieces and repurposed old templates for recycling and anti-litter posters to create his own artistic takes.
As part of the residency, which he began in September, Len conducts public talks about the program and about making art from discarded items.Credit…An Rong Xu for The New York Times
Sto Len, a pseudonym he has long used as his artist 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 waste into art materials and organizing gatherings at Superfund sites. Before taking the artist-in-residence position in New York, he did a similar stint as an artist-in-residence at a wastewater treatment plant in Virginia.
Len spent the first several months of the Sanitation Department program going on collection- truck ride-alongs, interviewing workers and following the waste trail from curb to truck to transfer station, where trash is loaded onto barges and trains and shipped out of the city for incineration and landfill.
These days, he is a daily presence at the department’s Central Repair Shop in Queens, a mammoth plant where much of the fleet is serviced and where Len, who lives in the borough now has two studios to work in.
“Can you imagine having studio space this big in New York City,” he said last week while standing in a room where sanitation workers once made signs reminding New Yorkers, among other things, to recycle and clean up after their dogs.
With the help of a department veteran, Len scoured historical video and film footage that had been stored away for decades and then digitized it for use in his video installations.Credit…An Rong Xu for The New York Times
Left behind was a heap of materials that included an old silk-screening press, and racks of templates for signs and publicity posters. Len has made the space into his own printmaking shop, dusting off the old press and tweaking the dated designs to make “No Dumping” and “Don’t Litter” posters with an ironic, trippy feel.
“I’m kind of collaborating with the history of the department,” he said of his psychedelic spin on traditional agency imagery. “It’s mashing up the visual language of sanitation.”
He made stickers altering the department’s name to Department of Sanity because, he said, “if we didn’t have anybody cleaning up, the city would really be crazy.”
On the repair shop’s sixth floor, he entered an old space once used to shoot and edit training and publicity videos. Keeping the deliciously dated décor, Len recently revived it into a studio for his newly formed SAN TV — Sanitation Art Network.
With the help of Henry Ferrante, a department veteran, he used the antiquated video equipment to scour video and film historical footage that had been stored away for decades and then digitized it for use in his video installations.
Len has also been working with the department’s archivist, Maggie Lee, to collect old materials like street trash cans and making friends with mechanics, painters and welders who might help him fabricate sculptures.
“It doesn’t get too much more real than this,” he said. “It’s way more interesting hanging out in the sanitation world than the art world,”
As he spoke, he passed garbage trucks in for repair and a mammoth dump truck on a lift that dwarfed the mechanic beneath it. He passed through a second-floor paint shop with an old horse-drawn trash-collection cart in the corner.
Len with Eric Ritter a department truck mechanic. “It’s kind of cool to have him around digging into the history of the department and exploring what we’re doing in the shop, Mr. Ritter said.”Credit…An Rong Xu for The New York Times
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 shop during lunch hour.
Len hopes that Mr. Ritter, and several other musician-mechanics he jams with, will play at one of his art openings or for a video segment.
“It’s kind of cool to have him around digging into the history of the department and exploring what we’re doing in the shop,” Mr. Ritter said. “We’ve always been very behind-the-scenes here — nobody really knows what we do.”
Mr. Ritter mentioned his other hobbies to Len: deejaying at roller rinks and chasing land-speed records in Utah’s salt flats.
“There are so many interesting stories here,” Len said, walking away. “Sanitation is weird and special in that way.”
To Len, garbage collection is a natural subject for making art.
“The thing about trash is, everyone is connected to it,” he said. “Hopefully, I can get people to look more closely at things they willfully ignore.”