Skip to main content

To upcycle or not to upcycle?

The controversial trend of turning vinyl records into pieces of art and novelty merchandise

By Allison Johnelle Boron


Arizona-based artist Daniel Edlen painted this close-up portrait of Lou Reed on the vinyl record of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal,” and it was given to the late singer as a gift.

ON GLOOMY SATURDAY MORNINGS in New York, shoppers like 23-year-old Sarah Lodge flock to the Brooklyn Flea, a hipster-ized version of your parents’ country swap. Vintage wares mingle with artisan donuts, antique spectacles and personalized crafts, like handmade greeting cards. But for Lodge, her can’t-miss booth is a Flea-favorite: racks of jewelry, clocks, switchplates, even iPhone cases — all culled from “upcycled” vinyl records and sold under the banner of “Wrecords by Monkey.”

Perhaps the most novel of the novelties, Wrecords attracts all demographics of shoppers, even children, for whom a vinyl record may as well be etched with hieroglyphs. No one can resist the temptation to pick up a piece of wearable or carry-able vinyl. “I can’t get enough of this stuff,” Lodge laughs.

Although records themselves are experiencing an unexpected — and strong — comeback (with a 32 percent rise in sales between 2012 and 2013), the trend of and demand for products created from destroyed or upcycled vinyl is also on the rise. A quick search on the popular creative-goods marketplace Etsy showcases any number of items made from vinyl records, available from artists and vendors from all over the world. Your humble author herself even has such an Etsy shop for handcrafted record sleeve journals.

I am a self-confessed chronic record adopter. Whether it’s a pristine, rare collectable or a ratty, scratched cut-out, it’s hard for me to leave my favorite artists behind in a bin. The problem arises when I return home and realize that not only do I not have space for my new treasures, but even if I did, they wouldn’t play anyway.

Last year, I realized I had to do something, so I began melting the records into bowls and cutting up the sleeves to create journals, filled with recycled drawing paper. For me, constructing these items feels almost like butchering an animal, as morbid as that sounds. Even though I feel terrible about doing it, I try to use every piece of the record as much as I can, ensuring that no valuable bit is left behind. Although it hurts a bit to destroy something I deem valuable, it’s extremely rewarding to give it new life and purpose. In the end, the integrity is never lost, just transformed.

A pillar of the upcycled vinyl world on Etsy, James of Records Redone specializes in hand-cut vinyl art. An Army Reserve veteran with one tour of Iraq under his belt, James began by immortalizing his homeland of Michigan by carving Motown records into the familiar mitten-shaped state and posting them for sale online. Since then, he has branched out to other states and shapes, but always tries to match the musical subject to the finished piece.

“A big part of the fun is looking through all the records and seeing if I can find a connection in a song or album title to a piece I can make,” he says. “I also spend a lot of time looking up where musicians are from, or where bands got their start. I’ve learned a lot about music geography in the process. Did you know the Cowsills are one of the only popular groups from Rhode Island? I’ve stocked up for future sales.”

Beyond the Internet, repurposed vinyl is a surprising draw for shops. Brick-and-mortar stores, like Sustainable NYC, have carried upcycled vinyl products since opening their doors. Items from vendors like Wrecords, Pennsylvania’s Vinylux and independent creators are constantly in demand, according to assistant manager and resident artist Savannah Zambrano. “[The pieces are] giving vinyl records a new purpose and planting a seed of inspiration and sustainability,” she says. Interestingly, the real-life shopping popularity of recycled vinyl is even lead Wrecords to open a Brooklyn storefront in April 2014.

Though bowls crafted from melted records and carved keychains have important places in the novelty food chain, other artists are using vinyl to make high-end works of art. Arizona-based Daniel Edlen creates intricate portraits of artists on records. A collector first, Edlen began experimenting with painting on vinyl in the 1990s. In 2006, after a family friend saw his work and urged him to try selling it, he refined his technique and word began to spread organically.

“I’m celebrating both the subject and the object, paying homage to the music by recognizing the importance of gathering around it,” Edlen says. To date, he’s not only sold his magnificent artwork through consignment and commission, but has also shown it in galleries and created pieces for the David Lynch Foundation and an exclusive series for the upscale suites at the Hard Rock Hotel in Hollywood, Florida.

Edlen begins by drawing a vague outline onto a record, then dabbing white paint to fashion his pointillistic style; the contrast is almost solely provided by the record itself, as the paint melds with the vinyl to provide the perfect shading. Pieces can take up to a month to complete, but the actual painting usually takes less than a weekend. The majority of the time is spent sourcing the perfect record. “I have a large listening collection,” he says, “and after starting to sell my art, I collected ‘canvases’ as well, finding the usual suspects I knew I’d paint at some time.” Occasionally, a buyer will also supply him with a particular record of his or her choosing.

The repurposing of vinyl is, of course, not without its critics; to some preservationists, chopping and melting records isn’t so much upcycled as it is dumbed down. “Early on, I went to a swap meet and a crusty character suggested I just paint little flowers along the inner and outer grooves instead of portraits,” remembers Edlen. “Online, it’s often difficult to communicate what I do and why. Both getting people to understand what they’re looking at, and my motivation for repurposing records can take longer than people are willing to attend.”

There is a fear from creators and buyers alike that a valuable record may accidentally be used in a piece, but most of the time, artists are careful to only utilize unplayable or destroyed vinyl that would otherwise be discarded as worthless. But it’s also important to understand that the majority of these would-be record-destroying heathens have a passion for vinyl themselves. “As a fellow collector, I completely understand some of the initial revulsion some folks feel when they see my pieces,” says James of Records Redone. “You cut a record! How dare you! Blasphemy!”

“I certainly understand a collector’s initial reaction might be defensive of the uniqueness of each pressed copy of an album,” says Edlen, “but I hope most can understand my goal in this digital age is to help keep the analog medium special and appreciated.” In the past, he has received accolades from the likes of Capitol masterer Ron McMaster, who excitedly identified his mark on a piece Edlen showed him. One piece, a painting of Lou Reed, was even given to the late singer.

B. George is the co-founder and executive director of the ARChive of Contemporary Music in New York City. Housing more than 5 million musical relics, most of them vinyl, the ARC’s Tribeca warehouse serves not only to promote vinyl preservation and importance, but also to perpetuate the legacy of its traditional usage, most notably through its semi-regular music sales. Surprisingly, the ARC also contains wallets, watches and other memorabilia made from vinyl, and circulated a newsletter on how to melt records into bowls in the late ’90s. As it stands, George calls repurposed vinyl “a fun novelty.”

“Most of the stones from ancient Rome were taken to build the next version,” says George. “There is always loss, entropy. The ARC and thousands of others do our best to preserve what we have, knowing that it cannot possibly last. Quality is taste, individual, cultural, global and always in flux.”

That constantly shifting cultural idiom ensures that there is no shortage of new ideas when it comes to records — and, for some, it seems that the more eccentric, the better. Vinylize, a Hungarian company, specializes in eyewear originally created from Communist records discovered in Budapest flea markets. And if you’ve ever dreamed about being immortalized in vinyl, you’re in luck: England’s And Vinyly will do just that. For £3,000 (approximately $4,500), your loved ones will receive 30 records containing your ashes, complete with customized audio and, for an extra £3,500 ($5,200), a sleeve painted by National Portrait Gallery artist James Hague.

Meanwhile, artists themselves are continually testing new uses for old records, or looking for new ways to improve their current skills. James says the record-cutting business is “still growing,” and that his focus is to keep getting better at the craft. He has, however, experimented with large-scale installations, including a gigantic Michigan comprised of 32 records, and a Chicago skyline spanning 28 records. As for Edlen, he’d be content to paint a record for Sir Paul McCartney, George Martin or Yoko Ono. “I do love the Beatles,” he admits.

The bottom line is that the marketplace can ostensibly expand and accommodate both traditional vinyl records and their offspring. Enjoying a bracelet created from an upcycled record doesn’t automatically make a staunch collector a bad person; simply put, it could be viewed as yet another way to love and honor the musical tradition of vinyl. “It’s a shame that so many people get rid of their old records,” says Zambrano, “but I think it’s a fun way to share a bit of music past with the present.”

Back at the Brooklyn Flea, Lodge agrees. “Last Christmas, I gave my family gifts made from upcycled vinyl. At first, my collector uncle was upset that a record was sacrificed to make a clock, but the more he looked at it, the more he liked it. At the end of the night, he hung it above his record player and decided that it was the best of both worlds.”