Tyrrell Winston is an artist working out of Bushwick in Brooklyn, NY. Using his neighborhood to scout materials, he repurposes discarded trash, like lipstick smeared cigarettes, drug baggies, and Hennessy bottles, into refined art objects. Always on the lookout, he uncovers objects on the street that most of us would overlook. His pieces are so attractively designed, it is easy to forget the abject origins of the materials. Consciousnesses of the neighborhoods in which he works, his process opens up dialogues with local and outside residents.
Tell us about your “Neighborhood Archaeology” series.
I’ve been working on this series for five years, but I didn’t know I was working on it for about the first four. I was collecting drug bags and dice on the street and making these Dash Snow-esque collages. They led me to where I am now. Last summer I started picking up cigarettes with lipstick on them, which is really vile. Some I coat in varnish, most of the time I spray them with an archival adhesive. Then I started collecting color-coordinated stuff like crack vials, Hennessy bottles and deflated basketballs. I’m going bigger, but I’m also branching out of found material.
What else have you been working on recently?
I started making these signs that are all based on what you would see outside of a nail salon or massage parlor. They were inspired by a drug dealer’s business card. They have iconic pop culture figures like Michael Jordan and Beyonce on them. I changed the numbers, and they lead you to fake voicemails. Some of the signs have spoof callback number with me saying something along the lines of, “You can buy drugs here. I’ll come to you. Just leave me your name and number.” These voicemails are recorded and go straight to email. I’m planning on using the recording for something in the future. Some of the other numbers listed belong to Donald Trump’s property manager or Melania Trump’s publicist. I love the idea of someone calling one of the numbers and saying, “I saw you’re offering a free massage,” and it’s Melania Trump’s publicist.
What kind of messages do people leave?
Right now a lot of times the people that call know me, but since I’ve started flyering the city I’m getting weirder voicemails.
What reactions do you want from your work?
It’s not so much about the reaction but acknowledging our obsession with celebrity culture, politics, social media and crime. I think the messaging behind these is open to interpretation. I’m not saying something is right or wrong – especially with the drug paraphernalia – I am not trying to glorify it or sugar coat it. It’s the juxtaposition of the high and low that I love. I like to make vile things look beautiful, so you reinterpret them.
You have such an amazing studio space! Do you treat it as an exhibition space?
Yeah. I had a party here with Rachel Libeskind. We made everyone wear lipstick. You couldn’t come in if you weren’t wearing lipstick. I didn’t make people smoke, but I had all these free cigarettes. It was fun. I’m doing a show this Fall called "Full House." I’m using every room in this place. My only curatorial stipulation is that it can’t be traditional painting.
We heard you repurpose old basketball nets and replace them with new ones. Have you ever been stopped from collecting these objects? Has a pedestrian ever asked you, “What are you doing here?”
Nobody has stopped me from collecting the nets, but I have been stopped on the street. People ask me, “What are you doing? We see you darting around!” I have been chased out of neighborhoods by people who didn’t want me there. Now I know to show them images on my phone of what I’m doing. It’s cool because then you have a really authentic, unscripted and surprising conversation with people. I had this one dude, who was really mad, say to me, “You shouldn’t be coming in here, picking up things in my complex.” He asked if I was with the police. I started talking to him, and we talked for about an hour. Then he said, “Stay here. I want to show you my paintings, and I want your opinion of them”. He was painting these Egyptian scenes and pharaohs. It’s cool to have moments like that.
How do you scavenge?
Basically just walking around. There is no real method to the madness. There are certain areas that have higher concentrations of different objects, but I love walking around outside. It’s absolutely insane what you find in Brooklyn and lower Manhattan when you start looking for specific items. It almost seems as if they gravitate towards you. On a weekly basis I’ll usually find at least one dead basketball, tons of Newport cigarette packs, Hennessy bottles, crack vials, drug bags and lots of children’s hair clips. If you spend six or seven hours on a Saturday looking around, you will find a proliferation of all of this stuff. I always have hand sanitizer and a plastic bag on me. Sometimes I don’t realize that I’m collecting because it’s become kind of second nature.
Recently, I was out with some friends and a girl who was with our group didn’t know about my art and saw me picking-up cigarettes and became pretty alarmed. She was like “Do you need a cigarette? You don’t have to pick them off the ground.”
What are some of your crazy stories? Any crazy finds?
You find a lot of drugs in bags. You find coke and crack. I found a big crack rock the other day that I have taped up in my studio. I have found over $100 on a couple of occassions. I once was walking home in the the rain, and I thought I saw a $20 bill and it was a few hundred dollars matted together. My ex-girlfriend used to do similar stuff. She found a thumb one time during community service, so that probably takes the cake for crazy finds. There are spots where I’ll find 100 crack vials. Crack is still a massive problem. All of these drugs bags in this studio are pretty much found in a 10-block radius from here. Heroin is a big problem around here too. There is a methadone clinic around the corner. There was a spice/k2 problem in the neighborhood for awhile. A couple of months ago there was a mass overdose right outside. People that are recovering Heroin addicts in the neighborhood smoke spice because it doesn’t come up in your system when they test you for drugs and it only costs two dollars!
Is it important for you to shine a light on these issues?
I was very into drug culture and used to sell drugs. I thought it was really cool to be this person for a while until I realized, “Wow, I’m a really big sack of shit for doing this, I’m destroying people’s lives”. In some weird way making this work is a penance. I want people to talk about these things. This is an underrepresented area and an overlooked community. The spice epidemic was happening for over a year, and it took a mass overdose for people to actually pay attention.
I want people to be drawn into the work but know that it’s appearance is more than skin deep. It’s my hope that people will ask questions, “Why are there so many of these vials, bags, etc? Where do you find these?” It’s kind of shocking how I’ll find children’s toys next to drug paraphenalia. I think we, as a society, think there is a separation from drug addicts and children, but all both of these worlds co-exist and they’re often times close to each other.
Are you now trying branch away from the found objects?
I’m trying to branch out, not away. Collecting items for work is exhausting and kind of depressing. I’ve been doing it (this intense) for a year. But I love making this work. I’ll work on the signs, but everything feeds into each other. I wouldn’t be making the signs if it wasn’t for the "Neighborhood Archaeology."
Do you collect personally?
No. My apartment is totally minimal. I collect 99 cent t-shirts from Salvation Army that I flip inside out.