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Meet the Artist Turning Used Cigarettes and Crack Vials into Art

The Brooklyn-based Tyrrell Winston’s found art is both filthy and fascinating.
Images courtesy of the artist

When I meet Brooklyn artist Tyrrell Winston at his studio, near the corner of Broadway and Myrtle in Bushwick, New York feels muggy, damp, and suffocating. Trash reeks, garbage water pools next to the metal-edged curbs, and every piece of grime floating in the air clings to clothing and skin, leaving behind the filmy feeling of filth. This is not condo Brooklyn, artisanal Brooklyn, or fun Brooklyn: earlier this summer it was this same block where 33 people were rushed to the hospital, suspected of overdosing on the synthetic drug K2.


This is where Winston creates his color-coded multimedia pieces, which often read like mood boards of sleaze, employing drug paraphernalia, discarded cigarette butts, empty bottles of booze, and broken lighters, to tell stories. In fact, as you drill down, you find subplots and surprises in Winston’s work, which often seems almost beautiful in its simplicity, before you realize you’re staring at a candy-colored bowl of plastics previously held by hard drug users.

“I’ve been collecting drug bags and dice for about five years, with no real intention behind it,” he says, pointing to different corners of his studio. “I started picking up colored trash and making little assemblages.”

Winston’s art is deceptively simple and cohesive, something that seems to have just clicked for him. He mentions to me that he felt his earlier attempts at collage were missing something. More than just grouping discarded items together by color or repurposing them in a new context, Winston’s work is urban archaeology, with each item being very personal. He picks up these items in the streets, sans gloves, and rarely alters them. Some of his pieces have an actual scent—stale and fetid. Even the thousands of lipstick covered cigarette butts mounted behind a glass case bring to mind a smell and mood, even though they are presented so uniformly sterile.

“Each one of those cigarettes has a story—a conversation someone had, a thought. Something that really happened to a person,” he says. “They’re fucking vile, but they’re also the ultimate sex symbol. When I was a kid, I always thought my friend’s moms who smoked were so bad ass. They’re weirdly misogynistic, but at the same time, I feel like they’re very feminine.”


Once you start looking, you know where to find things, and grouping them becomes logical. Winston tells a story with each piece, as the objects he employs share a theme of being used and discarded, but oddly coveted. Even as he explains that the basketballs he finds are never doctored up, simply shown as they’re found, you’re transported to a court somewhere in New York City, maybe to a bustling game, or beside one person shooting threes alone on an overcast day. Things happen uniquely in the spaces Winston pulls from.

“Crack vials are still all over the place around the Marcy Projects. There’s big art studio, Wrythe Studio on 544 Park, and there’s just crack vials everywhere. If I go early on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday morning, I can find cigarettes in Lower Manhattan, in front of bars before they clean up—I’ll get a few hundred.”

Before joking about his hometown, he mentions that his work takes a different tone when working in other cities: “You’re not going to find a proliferation of crack vials in the gutter in Irvine, California.”

We continue to tour around the rooms at his studio, each one bearing a different theme or style of work. Our last stop is a small square space, where printed signs bearing the images of Michael Jordan and Justin Bieber with phone numbers beneath them, lay against the walls, inspired by the unauthorized signage you see around nail salons, barbershops, and massage parlors in Chinatown. The pseudo-ads he posts around Lower Manhattan bear actual working numbers. Some drive you to the NRA hotline or Donald Trump’s campaign office, but the best of these are “fake” drug dealer numbers Winston sets up, where you’re prompted to leave a message, providing him new audio material to pull from for future work.


“They’re an ode to our fetishization of celebrity culture, mixed with the time I spend wandering the street,” he says. “There’s something discomforting about them. I want people to be slightly hesitant when they call.”

Winston’s work is a reminder that New York City still has plenty of boils and warts, and how quickly they vanish. He mentions how some of those 33 people who overdosed were sprawled out in front of his studio, making it difficult to even open the door, before noting that he hasn’t seen any of them since—they’re just gone. Eventually, he won’t be able to make these specific pieces by mining the streets of Bushwick, Lower Manhattan, or Bed-Stuy. There will be new trash, with less personality and more privilege—ATM receipts with plenty of zeros, cups that held $5 cold brews, or maybe no trash at all.

For now, Winston’s happy with the rhythm he’s striking in his work, and the entire process of gathering pieces, then sharing them via parties and smaller, intimate openings.

“Maybe it’s a lofty goal,” he says “but I hope this work can hit white ignorance square in the mouth.”

To learn more about the artist, click here.


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