With plastic bag ban looming, a Brooklyn artist recycles used bags into works of art

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RAE BK is creating faces on wooden canvas from discarded plastic bags just as NYS is banning them from use. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

New York State will be banning the use of single use plastic bags as of March 1 – much to the chagrin of some shoppers and business owners. But one Brooklyn artist says we should “just face it,” and adapt.

He calls himself RAE BK, a 39-year-old, Brooklyn-born and raised artists whose works have surfaces across the city. Recently, he’s been turning discarded bags that would normally end up on the trash heap into pieces of art — anonymous faces that are starting to pop up around the city in unsanctioned displays.

RAE BK only recently discovered this new genre. He combines the plastic bags with other debris he finds on the ground, including old keys, buttons, old phone cases and with that, creates unique art works that he installs around the city. He uses discarded plywood from construction sites and trash as his canvas.

“People think they just belong there,” RAE BK says of his art works in a small walk up apartment. There he takes these bags, found discarded in Chinatown, Wall Street, Times Square and other notable places, and creates odd looking faces that both amuse and mystify.

First, he cuts a piece of plywood to the size he intends to use as a canvas. Then, he shapes plastic bags of all sizes and colors to his vision and staples them to the canvas. With a heat gun, he goes on to create some of his most unique artworks.

The work starts as a plastic bag sitting on a piece of plywood. Then, its combined with other plastic and stapled. It’s finally melted with a heat gun into a face. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

RAE BK took some art classes when he was younger, but mostly learned his craft from the streets of New York City. He grew up in East Flatbush and he now does pop-up exhibitions to sell his work and pay his rent.

Two years ago, he spent one month, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, living in a store window on Allen Street in Lower Manhattan. Passersby could see him round the clock – an avant-garde art statement that got him notoriety – but without his real name. Straphangers may have seen his work in subways, “most people think it was supposed to be there.”

Since then, he prides himself on maintaining anonymity, as most of his works are unsanctioned.

“I don’t get permission to put my works on poles, doorway and walls around the city,” he said.

“So now, I basically find things on the streets and it keeps me walking far and wide,” RAE BK added. “I realized that these plastic shopping bags were blowing around – you’d see them stuck in the branches of trees. I realized that I could mold plastic bags into things and with a heat gun to cinch it, I started creating faces.”

RAE BK fashions these discarded bags into faces of art. (Photo by Todd Maisel)
A 25-year-old man was struck and killed by a hit and run driver on 19th Avenue near 86th Street this morning as he went to work at a Mexican bakery. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

He’s casting over 60 pieces to join them together to make large art works for public display. And the good part is because they are plastic, they have longevity.

“I love to use things that people discard as waste and the beauty of it is it’s like putting together a puzzle – and then it can be turned into something beautiful,” RAE BK says.

RAE BK understands why plastic bags are being banned and says he agrees that they are “bad for the environment.”

“I understand why this needs to happen, but at same time, bags are not going away completely nor is waste completely going away,” RAE BK said. ” I’m inspired by people who live in third world countries who utilize every piece of scrap for something. You can travel to Brazil, Ethiopia and you can’t find plastic on floor because it will be utilized to either patch a door, create shoe shine box, hinges on shoe shine box. I try to buy it from them, their ingenuity is inspiring.  So I look for plastic bags blowing around, squished into sidewalk, run over by cars – and make them into something beautiful.”

He added the faces will be seen around town, some of them already out there.

“My work is about things that are forgotten and my connection to the streets – the works will pay homage to the forgotten,” RAE BK said.

RAE BK likes to maintain anonymity as much of his work put on display is unsanctioned. (Photo by Todd Maisel)
RAE BK holds a finished product. (Photo by Todd Maisel)


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