Vinicius Ribeiro spends a lot of his time rifling through trash bins, peering under garbage bags and lugging home other people’s refuse.
He’s not looking for food or plastic bottles to sell; he’s hunting raw materials to use for his art.
“At the beginning, people used to look at me and say: ‘He’s a garbage collector.’ But I don’t collect garbage, that’s a big misunderstanding. Everything that I see, I see potential,” said Ribeiro, 38, in his small and well-decorated apartment on West 40th Street.
Though its tables, lamps, mirror and chairs all look like they were bought at high-end design stores, each piece was rescued from the garbage and refurbished by Ribeiro. He said the only item of furniture or decor in his studio that wasn’t dragged in from the sidewalk is his bed.
Born in a town outside Rio in Brazil, Ribeiro grew up frustrated with his “very traditional Brazilian family.”
“They didn’t give me any freedom to do anything,” he said. “I could not be an actor, I could not be an artist … I couldn’t be myself.”
So he came to New York in August of 2001 with $100 and a friend’s promise of a dog-walking job, which didn’t come to fruition.
“I became a survivor in NYC,” Ribeiro said. “I’ve worked, I’ve done so many things to pay the rent, to survive.”
Eventually he saved enough money to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology in 2011, but ran out of funds and had to drop out after two semesters.
His work with trash began largely as a product of necessity.
“I didn’t have the money to buy canvas, to buy all of those things that cost a lot of money, and I started getting stuff from the trash,” he said.
Ribeiro ended up falling in love with refurbishing other people’s disused furniture.
The processes are often long and painstaking, involving techniques that he learned at FIT adapted to fit his needs: an old chair sealed and repainted to look like it’s made of leather, a large frame and mirror decorated with hundreds of pushpins.
Ribeiro now designs sets, furniture, and clothing for photographers and other artists. He also sews pillows, which are sold at stores around the city.
“I think he’s extremely talented, he’s someone that can find garbage and transform that into beautiful pieces,” said Gazelle Paulo, an actor for whom Ribeiro has done work. Paulo mentioned that Ribeiro gave him a hat made out of an artist’s palette for a Marc Jacobs party.
On a recent evening, Ribeiro walked around his favorite pickup spots looking for fresh material. Going through a Dumpster, he was ecstatic to find white plastic objects that looked like chairs.
He frequents hotels, which throw out furniture and decorations in good condition. To make sure he doesn’t end up with bedbugs, he cleans all of his scavenged goods on the roof of his apartment building.
When he gets tired of something he’s made, he throws it away in the hopes that other people will take it from the street and use it, which he calls “creating a cycle.”
“People like something different,” Ribeiro explained. “I don’t know if that’s all of America or if that’s something with New York.”
To check out his art, find him on Instagram: @dumpster_chic