One man’s swipe is another man’s treasure.
Juan Carlos Pinto first started the recycling art form after getting busted for hopping a turnstile in 2002.
“It came as a reaction to the fare hikes back then,” Pinto said. “I got a ticket because I jumped — I didn’t have money in my pocket to pay.
“I got humiliated and there were a lot of MetroCards on the floor, so I picked them up and made a portrait of John Lennon to protest the rise in prices.”
The reactionary piece developed into a “green way” of representing New York identity, Pinto added.
Since then, the artist has created dozens of mosaics using the transportation tickets, with some juxtaposed against subway and bus maps.
His works include portraits of Frida Kahlo, The Mona Lisa, Robert De Niro and Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú Tum, who dedicated her life to raising awareness of the rights of indigenous peoples in Pinto’s home country of Guatemala.
“Coming from the countryside in Guatemala you didn’t have a lot of chances to pursue art,” Pinto said of his decision to come to New York in 1998.
“I didn’t go to school for art. New York has been my school. I call it the ‘University of the Streets.’”
The artist has a storage room filled with old MetroCards, though he said they’re getting harder to come by due to the fare increases and fees required for new cards.
“It’s an animal of extinction,” he said. “But public transportation is a human right and that’s what I want to represent.”
The blue, yellow and black-speckled portraits usually take Pinto two weeks to complete and he takes commissioned requests.
Pinto is also the mastermind behind the colorful glass, tile and mirror mosaics adorning the walls at several Two Boots pizzerias across the city.
“Basically I’m a garbage man,” he said. “I’m a dumpster diver. I use all recycled materials to give them a second chance.”
Pinto’s mosaic pieces are on display on garden and community walls throughout the five boroughs.
You can catch him speaking at an artist forum at the Bishop Gallery on June 7 from 2-4 p.m.