I, Garbot

Michael Nagrant / 11.03.05

In Ron Cajigas’ workshop, anything that’s not upended is probably askew—colored vodka bottles, an old train signal with its jeweled glasses of green, red, and yellow glinting under the fluorescent light. Stuffed parrots and coffee cans share floor space with pieces of laptop and a singing Billy Bass. These are the spoils of his occupation and the raw material for his art.

By day the janitor at Green Street Lofts, Cajigas spends his nights obsessively crafting Gar-bots—recycled garbage robots, which have become legendary in the building where he replaces leaky faucets and changes broken bulbs.

“In the beginning they were going to be called Regarbots—Recycled Garbage Robots,” says Cajigas, who drives a van decorated with images of cartoon robots. “But the ‘re’ would not fit on my license plate.”

The first Garbot, Captain Tron, was built in 1998 for the Green Street Lofts’ Christmas party. Cajigas had seen a robot made out of car mufflers and became fascinated with the idea of building one of his own. But he wanted it to be simple.

“I didn’t want to weld,” he recalls. “I work out of my house … so I can’t torch something. I thought glue and screws, can’t be nothing easier than that.”

Tinkering into the wee hours, he fashioned Tron, a machine-man with a flashing space backpack and a lava lamp for a heart.

Cajigas donated Captain Tron to a fundraising auction for the Museum of Contemporary Art, where it was purchased by a Lexus dealer on Division Street, for display in the dealership’s showroom.

Since Captain Tron, Cajigas has created hundreds of Garbots. He often works until 3 a.m. Sometimes he gets an idea in the middle of the work day and can’t wait to go home and build.

“It’s almost like clockwatching then, because I have this idea and I want to put it to work right away,” he says.

Among his creations are Cubs- and White Sox- themed Garbots fashioned from old ticket stubs, baseball cards and beer cans. A few years ago, he built a 10-foot-tall Garbot with an embedded camcorder. The feed from the camcorder played back into a monitor built into the Garbot’s chest. He has sold his handiwork at the Old Town Art Fair and the Museum of Science and Industry, but doesn’t consider himself an artist.

“Not anymore than anybody else,” he says. “I started this as a lark. I can’t even draw. I can paint by numbers.”

Cajigas is more interested in building Garbots as monuments to craftsmanship and obsolete materials.

“I like to keep making them, because I think eventually a lot of the materials I’m using for these things are going to be no longer,” he says. “We will completely eliminate tin cans. Everything can come in plastic pouches now.”

“When I was 18, Madison Street was known as Skid Row,” he continues. “You better not be there after dark. You better not even be there in the daylight. Then in the early ‘80s, [Green Street Lofts] was being tested out, more or less like a pilot. They got it right, somebody got it right. Now, everywhere you go is a knock-off of a loft building. They try to make them look like factories, but they’re not. The real brick isn’t there, the wear and tear like this building.”

Cajigas would also like to make a short film where the Garbots go around cleaning up the environment, “showing kids that with materials that we use to feed ourselves and throw in the garbage, you can make beautiful things.”

While Cajigas has no shortness of vision for his Garbots, he sighs and says, “Maybe it’s not the time for them. We are in a robotic world, and this is the last thing people want to look at.”

Entirely self-taught, Cajigas fears that studying other artists could impact his originality. “As it is I am influenced by everything that’s around me,” he says. “If I make a piece and someone says it looks like such and such, I’ll take it apart.”

He attributes his artistry to personal science. “If you really want to do stuff like this, you have to have a little bit of garbology in you. You have to be a garbologist, a collector of everything. I collect everything because I will use it somehow.”

Cajigas has so many ideas for new Garbots that there is little doubt that he will use all his material. He is already planning a 20-foot Garbot for a courtyard in Evanston. As he speaks of the future, he fingers a metallic tangle of Mardi Gras beads and talks about how the beads will serve as reflective innards for a strobe light in a new Garbot. As long as he has ideas and people want the Garbots, he says, he will continue to build them.

Like his mechanical offspring, Cajigas is tireless. “The other day I found a barrel, thought it might work for a hand,” he says. “From the hand, I am going to build a whole robot just to see how this piece fits to the hand.”

This article first appeared in the Chicago Journal in a different form.