At first glance, Sto Len appears fresh off a New York City garbage truck.
Dressed in work boots, cargo pants and a green-lined safety vest, he reports every day to a busy garbage truck repair shop in Queens, which is part of the Sanitation Department.
He consults with mechanics, welders and painters who work on collection trucks, salt spreaders and street sweepers. It then looks for a stock of street trash cans or department signs.
On closer inspection, his uniform is more broadcast punk rock than standard release, with a trash-can Ramones logo on the back of his vest and a municipal garbage 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 photo” is a perky caricature of Len, 43, who has spiky hair and wears oversized glasses.
As a resident artist for the Sanitation Department—and a familiar face to the common people at city agency depots—Len doesn’t collect the trash, but rather artistic ideas associated with it.
Leave it to New York to hire someone to create art about the city’s garbage collectors.
Len’s longstanding position is part of the Public Artists in Residence initiative, which was established to help artists “address pressing societal challenges through their creative practices” and is managed by the Department of Cultural Affairs.
The Cultural Affairs program is inspired by Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who began embedding in the Sanitation Department in 1977 as an unpaid artist-in-residence. The residencies now come with a $40,000 payment.
One challenge, according to a Sanitation Department press release, is getting New Yorkers to “rethink their own role” in the relationship between them, their waste, and those who make it disappear.
The latter are the approximately 10,000 sanitation workers who make up the largest municipal garbage collection service in the United States, collecting and transporting more than 24 million pounds of waste and recyclables every day.
The department wants its employees to be treated with more respect: About once a month, reports come in about employees being threatened or assaulted, said a spokesman, Josh Goodman.
“Our workers are aware that many members of the public do not act as if their sanitation worker were human,” he said.
For Sto Len, the public has adopted an “out of sight, out of mind” view of their waste.
“You take out your garbage bag and it’s gone forever, but where is it going?” he said. “Most people don’t want to know.”
So he wryly created a new department within the department – OK, the office is actually made up of him – called the Office of In Visibility. The goal: to bring attention to the working population.
Lens art images are posted on the department’s website and on his personal Instagram account. He has plans for shows in sanitation facilities and gives public talks and workshops about the residency, which he started in September, and about making art from discarded items.
Len doesn’t rummage through New Yorkers’ trash for his art supplies. Instead, he uses departmental materials. He remixed film footage about the mothballed department into video collage pieces and used old recycling templates and anti-stray posters to create his own artistic shots.
Sto Len, a pseudonym he has long used as his 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 organizing gatherings at Superfund locations. 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 early months of the Sanitation Department program taking collection truck rides, interviewing employees, and following the waste path from curb to truck to transfer station, where waste is loaded onto ships and trains and shipped out of town for incineration and to deposit.
Today, he is on a daily basis at the department’s central repair shop in Queens, a gigantic factory that maintains much of the fleet and where Len, who lives in the area, now has two studios to work in.
“Can you imagine having such a large studio in New York City,” he said last week, standing in a room where plumbing workers once made signs reminding New Yorkers, among other things, to recycle their dogs and tidy.
A lot of material was left behind, including an old screen printing press and racks of templates for signs and publicity posters. Len has turned the space into his own print shop, dusting off the old press and tweaking the dated designs to create ‘No Dumping’ and ‘Don’t Litter’ posters with an ironic, trippy feel.
“I kind of work with the history of the department,” he said of his psychedelic twist on traditional agency imagery. “It pulverizes the imagery of sanitation.”
He made stickers that changed the department’s name to Department of Sanity because, he said, “if we didn’t have anyone cleaning up, the city would be really crazy.”
On the sixth floor of the repair shop, he entered an old room once used to record and edit training and publicity videos. Len has kept the delightfully dated decor and recently revived it in a studio for his newly formed SAN TV – Sanitation Art Network.
With the help of Henry Ferrante, a veteran of the department, he used the outdated video equipment to search video and film historical footage that had been stored for decades and then digitized for use in his video installations.
Len has also worked with the department’s archivist, Maggie Lee, to collect old materials such as street trash cans and make friends with mechanics, painters and welders who could help him create sculptures.
“It doesn’t get much more real than this,” he said. “It’s much more interesting to hang out in the sanitation world than it is in the art world,”
As he spoke, he passed garbage trucks in need of repair and a giant dump truck on an elevator that dwarfed the mechanic below. He walked through a paint shop on the second floor with an old horse-drawn garbage truck in the corner.
At one point, Len greeted a truck mechanic, Eric Ritter, 60, who was leading a huge tire on a forklift. The two had met before when Mr. Ritter played his saxophone in the shop during lunch break.
Len hopes that Mr. Ritter, and a number of other musician-mechanics he jams with, will play at one of his art openings or for a video segment.
“It’s pretty cool to have him around to dig into the history of the department and research what we do in the store,” Mr. Ritter said. “We’ve always been very behind the scenes here — nobody really knows what we’re doing.”
Mr. Ritter told Len about his other hobbies: deejaying on roller skating rinks and chasing land speed records in the Utah salt flats.
“There are so many interesting stories here,” Len said as he walked away. “Sanitation is weird and special in that way.”
For Len, waste collection is a natural subject for art making.
“The thing with garbage is that everyone is connected to it,” he said. “Hopefully I can get people to take a closer look at things they’re deliberately ignoring.”