Advertising Art Director Turns NYC Garbage Into Artworks

Justin Gignac of the Toy Agency Makes and Sells 'Refuse Dioramas'

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- A young creative must be confident he can sell just about anything -- laundry detergent, hemorrhoid treatments, American automobiles. And there may be no better example of this self-assurance than Justin Gignac, a 26-year-old art director who has made a healthy side career out of selling trash.
Justin Gignac takes sidewalk debris most of us scuff through each day and turns it into artwork. He has thus far sold about $20,000 worth of the plastic cubes filled with authentic New York trash. | ALSO: Comment on this story in the 'Your Opinion' box below.
Justin Gignac takes sidewalk debris most of us scuff through each day and turns it into artwork. He has thus far sold about $20,000 worth of the plastic cubes filled with authentic New York trash. | ALSO: Comment on this story in the 'Your Opinion' box below.

800 sold
Not just any trash, mind you, but garbage picked straight off the streets of New York and artfully arranged in clear plastic cubes that Mr. Gignac signs. Over the past five years, Mr. Gignac, who toils for Toy, the ad boutique founded last year by former Fallon, New York, duo Ari Merkin and Anne Bologna, has sold more than 800 of these refuse dioramas. His customers come from all over, not to mention MTV, which handed out 200 of them at a sales conference. A true creative, Mr. Gignac is not sure how much in sales he's generated, but he puts it somewhere in the $15,000-$20,000 range.

Prowls sidewalks
His sources for product are pretty obvious, though Mr. Gignac has at times gone beyond the typical late-night sidewalk prowling that has supplied him with all the cigarette butts, rubber bands and coffee stirrers he needs. He is running a promotion that involves trash picked up around Yankee Stadium on opening day, for which he is asking a premium price of $100, twice the normal price for a cube. They're full of beer cups, peanut bags, pretzel and hot dog wrappers but relatively few tickets now that many fans hold onto them after they're scanned at the stadium gates.

He's considering other location-based sales, such as one at Shea Stadium -- "just to be fair to the Mets fans." And he's devising a PR event; he called it a "big installation" and then declined to comment further on the matter.

Larger versions planned
Mr. Gignac is also trying to determine pricing for larger versions of his cubes that he would have to have custom-made. He envisions them as 3-foot-by-4-foot boxes that could be hung on a wall. "It might be nice to have a huge piece of garbage floating on the wall, a landscape of trash," he said. However, as he designs these, he's careful to make sure the flotsam won't spill. His website notes: "Each box is unique and won't leak or spill."

As you'd imagine, NYC Garbage has provoked a fair amount of media interest. Mr. Gignac was recently interviewed by a TV camera crew from Seoul, South Korea, and he's been featured on Sweden's version of "20/20." Closer to home, Gawker recently snarked: "Just goes to show that if you package a turd properly, someone will buy it." The NYC Garbage website has a press section showing hits from Maxim and Playboy and a curious mention, "Iran," which links to a newspaper article written in Arabic, save for the web site's URL.

NYC Garbage's story began when the Norwich, Conn., native was working as an intern at MTV the summer after his sophomore year of college at the School of Visual Arts. Mr. Gignac, an advertising student, found himself in a discussion on packaging.

Package design
"Someone said packaging wasn't that important, and I disagreed," he said. "I figured the only way to test that theory was to package something that nobody would ever want. If you could get someone to buy it, you would know the package design was successful."

Looking out at Times Square, he decided that something would be trash, but it took him a year to get moving on what would eventually become NYC Garbage. After almost a year, he collected enough trash to fill 20 cubes and set up a little sidewalk stand -- a cardboard box on Times Square -- where he tried to hawk them. It took him a few days, but he finally found a buyer for one of his cubes, a man from Ecuador who didn't know any English. "For some reason, I couldn't convince anyone who spoke my language, but this guy just got it," he said. "In a couple days, I'd sold all 20."

"He brings a nice new perspective to everything he does," said Toy's Mr. Merkin. "I remember thinking, if this guy could sell garbage, he could sell just about anything."

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Devoted to a worthy cause? Rabid about participatory sports? If you have a fascinating Off Hours activity, describe your passion in an e-mail to Mike Ryan at mryan@crain.com.
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