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Discarded Food Cans Turn Into Canvas For British Street Artist

Those eyes grab you first. Only after a couple of beats do you realize you're looking at the painted bottom of a flattened metal can left on the street, and not some mysterious fairy.

These can art people come from the imagination of a British artist known as My Dog Sighs, who has left a piece of art on the street for someone to find every Friday for the last 10 years.

Above, check out a small sampling of some of his work. Below, he talks with The Salt about where he gets those cans and his funny name.

Why did you start painting faces on cans, as opposed to canvas or wood?

I make art to go on the street as part of my Free Art Friday project. I cannot afford to put canvas out, so I was always looking for free materials. I do not want to be seen as leaving litter, so I began using litter that was already there. I collected it, painted it, and put it back more beautiful. One day, I found a can on the floor, and it just worked with a sketch I had been developing. (Click on the video A Can Is Born to see how he does it.)

Where do the cans come from? Do you raid trash cans?

It started with cans I found on the street. I quickly realized there wasn't enough out there, so I raided the recycling bin. Then as certain cans became popular, the syrup and treacle cans, particularly (like Lyle's Golden, which is something like American corn syrup, and Lyle's Black Treacle, which is something like molasses,), I began to call on friends and family. Now wherever I go, people hand me bags of "special cans." I'm known as the "can man" at my kids' schools. It's amazing how many mums bake! Great for the syrup cans.

What do the cans symbolize to you and which kinds make the best canvas?

My work is often describe as melancholic, and I suppose I work towards that. The cans are like members of my family. I let them go on the street, which is a hard thing to do. I want them to speak to their audience. They say the eyes are the window into the soul, and I'm leaving a little bit of my heart and soul on the street, so the eyes are an important part of the pieces.

Surely you must need to eat. Why do you give your art away for free?

When I started 10 years ago, I had a secure job as a primary school teacher and my art was a hobby. An all-encompassing one, but I didn't need to make money out of it. This was liberating. Leaving my work on the street meant I had no one to answer to. No galleries saying yes or no. No worry about whether people will want to buy it or not.

I've been so lucky that what I've wanted to do, others have started to appreciate. I'm in a position now that I've been able to give up full-time work and focus on my art as a career, which is amazing. I've had two London sell-out shows and galleries around the globe are approaching me.

What's the best story you've heard about someone who's found your art?

I rarely get to see who takes my work, so the best stories are in my head. I did once spend a whole week working on a painting, only to put it out and turn to see a street sweeper put it in his cart. I was gutted, but that's the nature of the game. I like to think he took it back to the depot and hung it on his street gallery wall, maybe next to an Adam Neate or a Banksy.

What's with the name My Dog Sighs?

I saw a random phrase 20 years ago scrawled on a door in Barcelona, and when I was trying to think of a name, I thought, if I can remember it 10 years later, then maybe people will remember it when they see it on my work. P.S: Don't tell anyone, but I don't even have a dog.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

April Fulton is a former editor with NPR's Science Desk and a contributor to The Salt, NPR's Food Blog.