Rocco Grippo, a Yonkers, N.Y., sanitation worker, used to pass through the city unnoticed — and so did his garbage truck. The city’s 198,000 residents expected the garbage to be removed from their homes three times each week, and few paid much attention to how that was done. But, in July, Grippo, his fellow workers and their trucks attracted attention from the community when the Yonkers Public Works Department retrofitted six of its garbage trucks with art.
Now, Grippo, a 10-year veteran of the department, says residents wait for the trucks to return each week. “I was pretty excited [about the Art Trucks program] because I knew it would draw a lot of attention to us,” Grippo says. “Rather than seeing the garbage truck as something that’s coming down the street and picking up their trash, [residents] saw it as something they wanted to come outside and take a look at. [It’s like] a moving piece of art.”
One year ago, at Yonkers Business Week, an annual city event, a local artist proposed a public art project involving garbage trucks to Yonkers Public Works Commissioner John Liszewski. Although her original idea — dressing the trucks in tutus and having them perform a ballet — was canned, Liszewski accepted her next suggestion to cover the trucks in artwork depicting environmental themes.
Artists and local students submitted more than 200 design ideas, including a submission from Germany. A panel of judges, including teachers, individuals from the city’s art community and Liszewski, chose six designs that promoted the department’s earth-friendly messages.
During the 2007 Yonkers Business Week event, six of the department’s 45 refuse vehicles were unveiled, completely covered in new elaborate designs and bright colors. Rather than using paint, the trucks were wrapped in a durable, vinyl material on which the designs were printed. The Banana Truck shows a rotting banana peel and broken egg shells, while a pre-historic, pink, polka-dotted dinosaur, also known as the Yonkers Chomper, gladly consumes residents’ garbage. A fresh glass of water adorns the Water Truck, and the City of Metal Truck displays a futuristic design of city garbage workers handling large aluminum cans. The 4 Seasons Truck honors all public works services, including road maintenance, snow removal, recycling and refuse and water management. Designed by a local high school student as part of a class project, the Deer Truck, which Grippo drives, depicts a deer drinking from a river. The winners received $2,000 each for their submissions, and their designs travel throughout every city district. In the future, Liszewski hopes more of the city’s garbage trucks can display art.
Though its environmental messages are serious, the project also is intended to be fun, often livening up neighborhoods. “There’s a whimsical part of the project,” Liszewski says. “When people see the Yonkers Chomper compacting their garbage, it makes [them] laugh.”
Liszewski says the $74,000 project, which was funded solely by private donations, also aims to change the community’s perception of the public works department. “I think it’s the beginning of change,” Liszewski says. “A lot of times, people take for granted their sanitation workers or the people that maintain their streets. One of the things we wanted people to realize is how hard the work is…and to professionalize the work that our men do.”
Grippo, who says that he is just a regular worker, agrees. “I think [it was] a morale booster for a lot of these guys who were seen in a different light by the residents,” he says. “We get a lot of attention out there [now] that we normally didn’t get. It’s a very positive feeling for us as a crew [and] for the city.”