Charles Allen

Washington's experiments in community art haven’t always been great. But a new project with the city’s public-works trucks reflects the real D.C.

Public art is at its best when it’s divisive. But on this particular point, no one can argue: That’s some awfully pretty artwork on a truck that picks up trash.

D.C. Council member Charles Allen spotted the colorful service truck in his alley on Friday morning. Just as he suspected, it is, in fact, a public-art project. And this one’s not garbage!

Cities rarely throw their public-art funds at the trash, but D.C. has gone there. According to a post on art202, the blog for the D.C. Commission for the Arts and Humanities, this truck piece, titled Nuestra Tierra, was wrapped in a painting designed by Nicolas Shi. The artist entered a call for entries for the city’s Designed to Recycle program, a “mobile canvas” collaboration with the D.C. Department of Public Works.

Nicolas Shi, Nuestra Tierra. (DCCAH)

Shi relates his winning design to his immigrant upbringing.

[T]he first thing I thought was that the design needed to be fun and colorful. I also wanted it to reflect my Latin and Chinese roots since I was born and raised in El Salvador to Chinese immigrants. Over the years I have been working on two very distinctive styles: One drawing on my architectural and engineering background, and the second influenced by Latin American and traditional Chinese folk art. Needless to say, I thought the latter one was the most appropriate for this project.

Nine other recycling trucks are due to be wrapped over the course of the summer. It’s important to note that these are trucks that pick up the recycling, not the garbage—since the program is recycling civic infrastructure to create public art, you see. (The city should go ahead and paint the garbage trucks, too, though.)

Here are three more concepts for the trucks released by the city so far.*

Pat Goslee, Tale of Three. (DCCAH)
Yuriko Jackall, Heat (DCCAH)
Erin Curtis, French Trip. (DCCAH)

D.C.’s experiments in public art haven’t always been so great. The “Party Animals” campaign meant putting brightly colored elephants and donkeys on high-traffic street corners. (Republicans and Democrats, get it? Ho-ho.) The project only served to sublimate the city’s individual civic identity under its status as the capital. The same could be said for “PandaMania,” which was just like “Party Animals” but with pandas (to celebrate the National Zoo).

But the city’s public-works trucks belong to the city alone, damnit. This is something the feds can’t take away from us.

*Correction: This post initially misspelled the name of Yuriko Jackall, an artist. It has been corrected.

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