Staten Island Mechanic Turns Tailpipes into Artwork

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“No one can teach you to be an artist,” Lenny Prince likes to say. “The mufflers themselves trained me.”

Mr. Prince, 50, who owns Half Price Mufflers on Castleton Avenue in the New Brighton section of Staten Island, has been installing the gangly metal pipes for 25 years.

They may help to stifle engine noise, but they amplified Mr. Prince’s creative tendencies and helped him become a sculptor of figures and objects far more elaborate than the usual stick figures fashioned from car parts that one sees outside some muffler shops.

“That’s what muffler guys do — we weld pipes together,” Mr. Prince said. “There’s no brain activity involved, so after you do hundreds of them, one after the other, you get bored and want to try other things.”

“One thing muffler work does is give you a sense of how things fit together spatially — which angle fits in what space,” he said. “So I could look at something and see the scale right away.”

About five years ago, Mr. Prince began spending nights after work sculpting the scrap he found in the shop with other car parts. A brake pad, he thought, could work for an elbow, a control arm for a lower leg, a coil spring for a knee.

His pieces grew into larger figures with tailpipe limbs and muffler-shield faces.

Mr. Prince said he works quickly and rarely from sketches or photos.

“Muffler work is about in-and-out service,” he said. “If you can’t work fast, you’re out of business.”

Eventually, an army of figures sprang forth — knights, warriors, superheroes — and Mr. Prince amassed them all in the shop and its yard, much to the amusement of customers and colleagues.

“They think I’m out there,” he said, “and maybe I am.”

Visitors flocked to the shop and asked endless questions. Yes, he would tell them, he made all this crazy stuff himself, with no formal training.

Mr. Prince said he grew up in a poor village in the mountains of Guyana. With his parents largely absent during his childhood, he was taken in by relatives and, he said, “really raised myself.”

For comfort, he made himself toys out of found objects, clever mash-ups of electronics and odd parts. He worked briefly as a mechanic, then moved to New York at age 20, settling first in Brooklyn.

After seeing a television commercial for Meineke Discount Mufflers — “I’m not gonna pay a lot for this muffler!” — he decided it was a trade he could learn quickly. He found work in a Staten Island muffler shop and lived behind the garage in a trailer. By 1996, he had saved enough money to open Half Price Mufflers, which grew by word of mouth over time.

“That’s how it works on Staten Island,” he said in the shop recently, his Guyanese lilt replaced by a flattened Staten Island patois. “It’s ‘Hey Frank, did you go to that guy?’ ‘Yeah, I did.’ Then they come.”

He walked past a rack crowded with muffler pipes and said, “Most of that’s for show, so things look complicated and the customer thinks, ‘Wow, this guy knows his stuff.’ ”

Mr. Prince’s sculpting skills began to get recognized. When Francis the Praying Mantis, a giant wooden insect of local renown outside the Staten Island Children’s Museum in Snug Harbor, fell into disrepair several years ago, Mr. Prince made a new one out of car parts. The legs are muffler pipes and the eyes are old catalytic converters, the boxy units that help filter emissions from engine exhaust.

Having run out of storage space at the shop a few years back, Mr. Prince opened Lenny’s Creations, a gallery in a nondescript building in nearby West Brighton. It is marked by a bright yellow banner with the words “Art Exhibit” and a smaller sign telling visitors, “All sculptures are handmade from recycled car parts.”

Mr. Prince’s display is complete with sound effects; pieces include a space shuttle replica with a video gaming booth.

There is a brigade of Transformers-style figures with working lights and motors that move parts. There is a harbor display featuring the Staten Island Ferry and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. A life-size statue of President Obama has a muffler head. The Michael Jackson figure has a white glove made from a muffler shield over a catalytic converter.

Mr. Prince stopped in front of an insectlike figure with feet made of lower control arms, shock-absorber legs and elbows made of suspension springs. It had a gas pump-nozzle gun to go with a body fashioned from car bumper pieces, and lug nuts for eyes.

Mr. Prince said he wanted the display to show his resourcefulness and versatility, how a poor boy with nothing taught himself to make everything.

“If someone looks at all this and says, ‘This guy can make anything he wants’ — that’s what I want,” he said. “This is how I crown myself as the king of what I do.”

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