Recycled Mosaic Art

A guide to finding and using repurposed and recycled mosaic materials in a responsible way.

Materials That Age Gracefully

Technically, you can make a mosaic from anything just as you can make art from anything, but if you say “mosaic” to mean a piece of durable artwork made from hard weather-resistant materials, then you have to resist the temptation to include things like plastic toy parts or wooden figurines or metal bottlecaps. Or keep the artwork indoors, which is fine. The point is that all the grout in the world will not make those materials more resistant to rust or humidity or degradation by the sun’s ultraviolet rays. In fact, concrete is mildly caustic and actually causes those materials to oxidize more rapidly when exposed to moisture.

All that being said, I love to use found and improvised materials in my own mosaics, and I have used wood and plastic and thin pieces of painted metal. BUT I used them in indoor mosaics. I did not tell myself any art-school babble about how natural and beautiful it would be to watch my art decompose and decay, etc., mainly because I have seen older found-object mosaics where the plastics and tins have eroded out, and they didn’t look interesting. They looked sad. Plastic does not age gracefully, especially when seen alongside glass and stone that look the same as they day they were installed.

There is also the environmental cost of making certain forms of art. If I want to make Tibetan butter sculptures, I will use butter. Then I can watch my artwork melt in the sun and listen to the Buddhist monks talk about the impermanence of life, etc. But if I use materials like grout and glass tile (materials which take a lot of fossil fuels to manufacture), then I will make sure that the artwork hangs around long enough to attempt to justify the environmental cost.

Recycled Materials

Recycled and repurposed materials commonly used for making mosaics:

  • old china plates
  • tea cups
  • seashells
  • beads
  • ceramic pieces and figurines
  • household tiles, used and stripped from walls or floors
  • scrap glass
  • broken mirror
  • teeth, bone
  • buttons
  • marbles
  • pebbles and beach stones
  • typewriter keys
  • jewelry
  • small metal tools
  • coins
  • bottle caps
  • nuts and bolts
  • dice
  • chandelier pieces
  • old watches
  • metal, glass and ceramic souvenirs

Keep in mind that many found objects such as bones and seashells are porous. This means that they can be stained by grout and that they can be damaged by freezing temperatures if water is allowed to soak into them. The solution to both issues is to seal the objects thoroughly with a tile and grout sealer. However you don’t want to get the sealer any place glue or grout needs to stick. We glue the objects down, then we take a small artists paint brush and coat the tops of the found objects with sealer, taking care to not let excess sealer run down the sides of the object where the grout needs to bond. After the mosaic has been grouted, we come back a few days later and seal the entire mosaic, grout and all.

Sourcing Materials

Here are a few places to check for recycled mosaic materials:

  • Tile stores, flooring outlets and home improvement centers: ask the managers for broken and discontinued tiles.
  • Look around the dumpsters at home improvement centers or tile shops for damaged discards.
  • Neighborhood construction dumpsters and home renovations.
  • Search your garage and those of your friends and family.
  • Thrift stores.
  • Garage sales.
  • Craigslist-check the free listings.
  • Freecycle.
  • Discarded stained glass pieces from glass artists.