Like a “phoenix out of the trashes” artists raise awareness of the pollution crisis and consumerism culture while making a positive social+eco impact.
Environmental destruction is getting people from all over the world to stand up. Sometimes it takes the form of mass protests, and sometimes it takes the form of art. In the end, we are all asking the same: for our leaders to cope with the social and climate crisis.
What’s quite unprecedented, are all the quiet protesters who are rising to the vanguard in the most peaceful form of revolution. Through art, they are expressing their despair and making a statement of the current culture. So is pollution itself launching a new generation of artists?
From scrap metal, recycled floppy discs, old cassettes, plastic collected from the oceans and post-consumption textiles, and even toys, here are some seriously interesting artivists promoting the use of recycled materials in their creations. You be the judge!
1. Barefooted Welder | Scrap metal sculptor from Australia
Barefooted Welder leads a freestyle attitude and brings a renewed cultural storm to the metal art sculpture. The badass character of his striking creatures welded life-size and sometimes with gigantic dimensions, roar to overwhelm.
The artists Micky D. walks barefooted across landfills, hoping bins and stopping by hidden spots that were meant to be nature. As vegetation makes its way between the dramatic scenery, there are loads of valuable materials. Collecting trash is one of the most challenging chapters, as recycling is already expensive and time-consuming, especially metal as it is a heavy material.
Since 2015 the Barefooted Welder has collected over 7 Tonnes of scrap metal, including steel, copper, and aluminum. Leaving this waste behind has devastating effects on the Earth & our health: heavy metals leach and contaminate the soil and water system. The art raises awareness of this event while trying to keep alive the idea of what Australia used to be.Find Barefooted Welder in his shed in North Queensland making the sparks fly, using the endurance of scrap metal to transform it into remarkable beauty.
2. HA Schult | Sculptures made out of garbage
HA Schult is a German conceptual artist, known primarily for his object and performance art and more specifically his work with garbage. His best-known works include the touring work, Trash People, which exhibited on all continents, and the Save The Beach hotel, a building made of garbage.
Schult works in the tradition of Pop Art, being influenced by commercial advertising and a critical view of consumerism, but also creates happenings. The artist describes himself as an ardent proponent of the “new ecological consciousness” and was referred to as an “eco-art pioneer” by the Washington Post.
For decades HA Schult has managed to stimulate public awareness using images he has experienced. He stages topics in public places, which are normally edged away from the public. His artwork is always directly related to the location where it is shown, making a biting commentary on the indulgent aspects of western society. He calls our attention to our own conspicuous consumption, obsessively returning to the metaphor of garbage, refuse dumps, and debris.
3. Robert Bradford | Sculptures made out of recycled toys
This artist creates his life-size and larger-than-life sculptures of humans and animals from discarded plastic items, mainly toys but also other colorful plastic bits and pieces, such as combs and buttons, brushes, and parts of clothes pegs. Some of the sculptures contain pieces from up to 3,000 toys, saving them to become landfill.
His unique artistic methodology started with the idea to consider that his children’s forgotten toys could be a part of something bigger. Bradford says he likes the idea that the plastic pieces have a history, some unknown past, and that they also pass on ‘cultural’ history as each of the pieces represents a point in time. The imaginative sculptures are full of color, irony, and positive energy.His recycled art is collected worldwide by private galleries, institutions, and museums. Robert now lives in Herne Bay, Kent, and is happy to work using his clients’ objects and incorporate their own toys into his commissioned works.
4. Steven Rodrig | PCB sculptures using discarded electronics
Steven Rodrig is an innovative artist who restructures discarded circuit boards and electronic parts to form extraordinary arts that are organic and mechanical at the same time. Curiously enough, his background is not arts, but was trained in structural mechanics; ultimately he found his path through his unique PCB sculptures – using a material that is not originally meant to be part of a sculpture.
He collects old computers, VCRs, radios, cell phones, and anything that has a PCB that could be recycled. Others such as capacitors, transistors, diodes, help the artist to achieve the peculiar organic look of his sculptures. The PCB adds a dimension of mechanical beauty unlike any other.
The artist faced his own challenges in the discovery of a new type of art category, developing new special tools and using gadgets in unconventional ways to manipulate the PCBs. The goal of his art is to bring awareness to the fact that technology is evolving at a rapid rate, and new generations of PCBs are produced to leave previous designs outdated. Rather than ending up in a mound of obsolete waste destined to rot in time, the artist wants to remind us all to recycle, showcasing beauty within the electronic parts we throw away that’s waiting to be discovered. If you wish to donate feel free to reach out to the artist!
5. Guerra de la Paz | Sculptures made of recycled clothes
Guerra de la Paz is a collective of Cuban artists founded by Alain Guerra and Neraldo de la Paz. Based in Miami, Florida, they work from unconventional materials like recycled clothing, from which they create very colorful sculptures.
The artists find inspiration in the familiarity of ready-made – whose archaeological qualities and encapsulated energies evoke the significance of the human footprint and reveal psychosocial and environmental messages – while exploring themes with cultural and historical relevance.Their pieces are often interpretations of classic artworks and frequently convey deeply political messages. Guerra de la Paz’s art questions modern consumer society, and the way we blindly use and discard objects that are still in good condition, such as clothes.
6. Nick Gentry | Portraits made of recycled media
Nick Gentry is a London-based artist whose signature device is to recycle used floppy discs (the ancestor of the USB drive), and other materials such as used film rolls, VHS disks, vinyl record sleeves, and x-rays, on which he paints astonishingly futuristic portraits.
The environmental artists also create a conversation between digital and analog processes. These objects are no longer in the spotlight, but by placing them there for a second, it becomes easier to comprehend the speed and extent of the changes that are taking place today.
His work is influenced by the development of consumerism, technology and cyberculture in our society. Through the process of use of recycled media artifacts, he believes that “contributor, artist, and viewer come closer together”. The materials are ethically and sustainably sourced directly from members of the public in a uniquely collaborative ‘social art’ project. This open working practice is a fundamental starting point of each new work and allows shared histories to form recycled reflections of contemporary society.
7. Jason Mercier | Celebrity collages made with their own waste
Jason Mecier, a San Francisco-based artist creates portraits of celebs using everything from bits of discarded jewelry to empty deodorant cans and bubble-gum wrappers. He has spent 15 years carefully collecting rubbish and using it for his masterful modern artwork.
Mercier specializes in celebrity collages and outrageous mosaic portraits done with the celebrity’s own discarded objects. While Hello Kitty likely didn’t discard any objects, Donald Trump and Mariah Carey probably did. He meticulously fabricates anybody out of anything, from Kevin Bacon out of bacon, to Honey Boo Boo out of 25 lbs. of trash. Artist Jason Mecier says that many celebrities have bought the work they inspired. Each one of his creations takes at least 50 hours of his time.
8. Derek Gores | Collages made of recycling magazines
In his wild collage portraits, Derek Gores recycles magazines, labels, data, and assorted found analog and digital materials to create the works on canvas.
The artist has achieved national attention for his artwork series, which has shown his interest in the natural beauty of figures and the fearless attitude of play. His art references a classic beauty but made of raw and geometric and un-designed parts that enable contemporary beauty. The artist hopes to create a real experience, instead of just a picture of an experience; for that feeling of having the eyes of a kid, where everything is new.Recent adventures have taken his work to Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, and Sacramento, and his clients include Lenny Kravitz, U2, Adidas, Madonna, Harley Davidson, Nokia, and more.
9. Erika Iris Simmons | Pop-art portraits made with old cassettes
Erika Iris Simmons is a self-taught artist who focuses on using non-traditional, discarded, and donated materials to create her artworks. She has a love for the archaic, using donated second-hand items as her prime media.
She specializes in using old cassette tapes to create incredibly artistic celebrity portraits, hoping that not everything which has outlived its use goes to waste. The artist is attracted to the idea of discovering new purposes for objects.Simmons makes portraits of people associated with the item she chooses – without adding any paint or pigments. The recycled artist uses materials such as sheet music, wine labels, money and, old cassette tapes. “It feels great to work with strange, older materials. Things that have a mind of their own. Most everything I use has been thrown away or donated at some point. Past its prime, like some of the finest things in the world.” – Erika Iris Simmons
10. Messy Msxi | Experiential artwork “Plastic Ocean”
Artist and illustrator Tan Zi Xi’s work mixes wry, playful humor with the realities of ocean pollution. In 2016 the Singapore Art Museum invited her to be part of Imaginarium: Under the Water, Over the Sea. The artist recreated a physical manifestation of the Pacific Garbage Patch, where children and adults could experience being immersed in a space covered with trash, simulating the environment of the ‘plastic pool.’
For the artist herself, one of the most memorable experiences was the process itself of creating “Plastic Ocean”, as it was rather painful in many ways. Apart from the sheer amount of work when it came to collecting, cleaning, and organizing 26,000 pieces of discarded plastics for the installation, the process of receiving and learning just how much waste we produce daily. “When we start to study and be conscious of our waste, it will hit home just how unsustainable our culture of convenience is. This revelation is life-changing”, shares Tan Zi Xi.
“Plastic Ocean” is so far the most remarkable artwork by Tan Zi Xi, an experiential piece is an eerily immersive reminder of the permanence of our impact on the oceans.
11. Yong Ho Ji | Sculptures made with recycled tires
Ji Yong-Ho is a contemporary Korean sculptor known for his distinctive technique of working with recycled tires for his masterpieces.
Throughout his figural sculptures, he depicts a variety of animals and mythological hybrid creatures. The figures created by this young Korean artist mostly remind us of science-fiction monsters, alien creatures, humanoids, and genetically modified organisms (GMO) which appear in myths and in modern science fiction stories and films.
Art of Yong Ho Ji clearly expresses and throws a fair amount of skepticism to those who are trying to defy nature by creating entirely new forms or species of animals or plants and even human beings by scientifically modifying the mutation of genes. His practice explores controversial issues of genetic modification and cultural waste, whilst simultaneously allowing him to pursue his interest in traditional and detailed anatomy. Today, Yong-Ho’s works are in the collections of the Foundation for Contemporary Arts in New York and the Seoul Museum of Art. The artist lives and works in Seoul, South Korea.
12. Jane Perkins | Portraits made of found materials
Jane Perkins is a UK-based artist who calls herself a “re-maker”, taking inspiration from found objects and recycled materials, to create something new.
The materials are mainly collected from boot sales and donations from friends and neighbours. If she runs out of a particular colour and she’ll go out searching in order to complete a piece. No colour is added to the materials – everything is used exactly as found.Her stunning and colourful portraits blend in harmony, using a wide variety of recycled materials including toys, buttons, jewelry and other found treasures.
13. TC Trash Art | Daily art made from beach clean-ups in Florida
Rebecca Fatzinger and Cristina Maldonado are the artists behind scenes for TC TrashArt. Discouraged with the amount of garbage on their local beaches on Hutchinson Island in Stuart, Florida, they started turning their beach trash into art. The art is entertaining and yet educational with the ultimate goal to inspire others to clean the beaches too!
They come up with really curious and fun little characters, which makes you look at garbage from a whole different perspective. The inspiration comes from ideas of events, holidays, or depending on the pieces of trash found on the day. 85% of what they create is photographed and instantly discarded to trash or recycling so you can only get to appreciate his daily posts on social media.
Final words on artivism
With these bunch of inspiring artivists that we just showcased, it’s worth mentioning that the fact they are using recycled materials in their makings is not just to save the materials, nor the new trend of up-cycling. It is about embracing the beauty of hope, and about the emotional connection, the artist inspires others in creating a piece of art.
Art is also powerful because it doesn’t overwhelm the public as generally scientific reports do. Instead, it offers a solution and a profound sense of optimism. Producing sculptures from reclaimed waste brings an activist touch and a powerful message that is way more engaging.We are seeing trash-artworks going viral on the internet and inspiring millions of people to rethink their daily actions, to go out to the streets, and become litter heroes themselves. Artivism creates empathy and compassion, making those watching relate to the cause. What art is triggering is a commitment for us all to take a stand in the smallest, and yet most meaningful way.
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Maxime Dücker is the co-founder of Ourgoodbrands.com - an entertainment platform that exists to empower consumers to make better purchase decisions through valuable & honest information, tools and resources that come in the form of social impact brands & sustainable lifestyles. Maxime also runs her impact agency supporting social enterprises with their marketing.