The art people encounter most often – the stuff folks stumble across while walking or driving down city streets – is San Diego’s glut of painted utility boxes. Love them or hate them, the colorful, sometimes kitschy boxes are often the first thing people envision when they think of local public art.
But the utility boxes aren’t technically part of San Diego’s official civic art collection. While the city’s Commission for Arts and Culture has spent money on painting utility boxes in the past, currently they only point people interested in them toward a few of the local businesses improvement associations that have created utility box art and maintenance programs of their own.
Even those groups’ interest in the boxes, though, ebbs and flows. In many neighborhoods, it’s been close to a decade since artists have touched any of them. Faded and neglected boxes are everywhere, like a sad urban graveyard of dead art.
North Park, though, is one neighborhood where the utility boxes have recently been brought back to life. Jason Gould, owner of Visual, an art-supply store and gallery on 30th Street in North Park, is the mastermind behind the mini murals popping up on every corner of the ‘hood.
‘Where’s the Art?’
Last time I checked in with Gould, he’d worked with several artists to repaint over two dozen utility boxes in North Park. With no budget and only tacit approval from North Park Main Street, the neighborhood’s nonprofit business improvement district that collects fees from local businesses in exchange for services like graffiti removal and marketing campaigns, Gould was able to make North Park look more like the creative, artsy neighborhood it’s supposed to be. At the start, North Park Main Street asked Gould to follow a time-consuming repainting process that he ultimately bucked in favor of quicker, less formalized approach.
“North Park is an arts district, right?” he asked me when I talked to him about his utility box project last year. “But where’s the art? I didn’t see it.”
We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?
Hi, Pete. You beat me to it!! I remember well when the first painted utility boxes began appearing downtown. AND the graphic art on the sidewalks. In fact, I have a fairly comprehensive collection of photos I wandered around taking during my lunch breaks. Let me know if you or anyone else would like to have the second print (these were 35 mm that I obtained with double prints). I'd have to search and see if I have any digital photos but I retired in 2001, the same year I got my first digital camera.
The original “mastermind” of painted utility boxes is Candice Lopez who, with her City College graphic design students and hundreds of volunteers, created the Urban Art Trail back in the mid-1990's, transforming a blighted East Village, not only with utility boxes but through sidewalk poetry, murals, mosaics, benches, birdhouses and more.