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Snapshot New York: NYC Sanitation Department's artist-in-residence sTo Len shines a light on environmental issues

Snapshot New York: Artist sTo Len highlights environmental issues
Snapshot New York: Artist sTo Len highlights environmental issues 03:49

NEW YORK -- One man's trash is another man's art.

One artist, who goes by sTo Len, has spent his career focusing on environmental issues, and he's doing it from an unexpected workspace.

On this day, sTo Len's workspace is one of the most polluted industrial sites in America.

"I see beauty everywhere. Those beautiful moments, I often find them in some of the most mundane aspects of life, and those beautiful moments spawn the art," he said.

Newtown Creek splits Queens and Brooklyn. Some parts contain years of discarded toxins and oils -- a perfect setting to show the ugly truth of urban pollution but in a way that's beautiful.

"Art has a way to get to the heart by kind of like using beauty and using sort of like these poetic ideas and interventions to talk about things that are really hard to talk about," sTo said. 

If the information can't reach you, how can it teach you? Which makes him part educator as the artist-in-residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation. His art is as timeless as his studio's location -- the six-story repair shop for the sanitation department.

"This is the biggest sanitation department in the world. There are 10,000 employees. What am I gonna do? I'm one person, you know. I'm just an artist," sTo Len said.

A reclaimed print shop is a perfect place to create a message of recycling.

"It's funny, this is like a super lo-fi setup, actually, for screen printing ... I like to mix the colors as I print," he said. "Seeing them just with new colors, in new ways, representing the information just gives them new life."

His most recent project is down a long hallway behind an innocuous door that's been closed off for years. What sTo has since unearthed is a treasure trove of New York history.

It's become the focus of his latest art project -- a documentary showcasing the role of sanitation in New York's history.

"I started to play this stuff realizing there's incredible footage here that spans 100 years," sTo said.

More than 100 years ago cleanliness was a real problem. The Department of Sanitation first started recycling back in the 1890s when organic rubbish would be boiled down to oil. Sanitation workers were known as the "white wings" and were celebrated as servants of the public.

"How important has the sanitation department been in the growth of New York?" Overmyer asked.

"It's, they're interchangeable," sTo said.

"Is sanitation your muse or climate change?" Overmyer asked.

"You can't separate sanitation and waste management from climate change. To me, they're totally intertwined," sTo said. "The waste we create has an impact on the planet."

He is now digitizing more than 500 pieces of film, trying to create a story that resonates.

"I've been putting in the hours, and it pays off because not only have I learned so much, but I'm really starting to see how to sculpt this," sTo said.

The climate crisis is intangible. His job is to make it personal, which gives us a reason to act.

"There's some challenging moments, and those challenges sometimes are putting a mirror on the public and saying, 'It's up to you now. What are you going to do?'" sTo said.

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