Meet the Activist-Minded New York Artist Who Wallpapers Dumpsters All Over Rome

Photo: Christine Finley

Painter Christine Finley first came to Rome on an artist’s grant in 2008, and in the years since, she’s seen one of her most unlikely side projects take off: covering standard-issue city dumpsters with ornate patterned wallpaper. “The dumpster is an incredibly ugly object in the landscape,” she says, “and turn[ing] it into a work of art — you just feel it. Whether you’re 8 or you’re 80 — everybody loves it.” Since then, she’s wallpapered 42 dumpsters in 12 cities around the world, but the project has grown the fastest — and the most meaningfully — in Rome. This past summer, Finley partnered with ReTake Roma, a nonprofit that organizes neighborhood cleanups around the city, and watched as her decorated dumpsters transformed into a symbol of environmental activism and community engagement. We chatted with her about the project, the contemporary art scene in Rome, and why garbagemen have become some of her biggest fans. 

How did you get started with dumpsters?
I worked in the film industry as a set decorator and scenic painter [before coming to Rome] and collected wallpaper from various shoots. I was trying to figure out how to use this material when I was asked to participate in an installation at the port of Los Angeles. I worked in a 40-foot container for an entire week. The containers were all earth-toned so I wanted to disrupt this mono-tonality by wallpapering one with a baroque pattern. Then a few weeks later, a friend let me wallpaper his studio dumpster, and the rest is history.

Tell us more about your partnership with ReTake Roma.
ReTake Roma does a general cleanup of walls and store gates in different neighborhoods around the city, and they really had the juice and permission and all the right things in order to work with the government trash system, which is called Ama. This summer, Ama delivered dumpsters to them, and we worked together and it was reported in La Repubblica and then it went totally viral all over Italy, so much so that two different cities in Italy created festivals of decorating and designing your own dumpsters around the city. One was in Sardinia and one was in Lecce. They had cash prizes for the most creative dumpster, and people all over town were redoing their dumpsters and beautifying their neighborhood, which was a dream come true for me.

What have the reactions been to your dumpsters when people come upon them?
In Italy the response is really exciting. Once, a garbage-truck driver was coming to dump the bins when I was working on them outside. And he stopped the truck in the middle of the street to block traffic. He walked over to me, shook my hand, walked around the dumpster, and was just absolutely beside himself. Then he insisted on buying me a coffee and a pastry and told me how amazing I was and how I just totally made his day — blocking traffic the whole time, by the way.

Where are your favorite spots for contemporary art in Rome?
Some great places are the Cinema America Occupato, an abandoned theater in Trastevere that is currently occupied by students who are screening free movies every day and night. They also have workshops for theater and music with a library and study space with free Wi-Fi for all, with brilliant curating and events. Teatro Valle Occupato is another occupied theater that has a street-art focus with epic performances, and they also teach opera to children. And, of course, MACRO Testaccio and the Zaha Hadid building at Maxxi