Candice Lopez bought a loft in downtown San Diego on 10th and F Streets in the late '90s, before a chunk of the East Village had been summarily renamed the Ballpark District. "It was a pretty dicey area," says Lopez, a professor of art and design at San Diego City College.
Drug dealers set up shop atop the neighborhood's many industrial-green utility boxes. These heavy-duty hunks of metal are intended to house electronics for stoplights and telephones, but they made ideal benches for ill-intentioned loiterers.
While having coffee downtown with a friend one afternoon and discussing ways to improve the blighted area, Lopez' gaze fell on a cluster of the graffiti-scarred utility boxes. "We could paint those, to start," she thought aloud.
Lopez knew she'd stumbled on a good idea. After making some calls, she learned that SDG&E, PacBell and the city owned the boxes. She asked their permission to paint, and they all gave the go ahead.
"I think we were allowed to do it because back then nobody really cared about the East Village," Lopez says.
About 75 artists and art students cared enough to submit designs and volunteer their labor.
After the artists transformed the boxes, no one knew if the artwork would be left alone or if it would provoke taggers to reclaim their territory. Taggers, it turned out, have an eye for quality, and a fairly specific aesthetic preference. Boxes by professional illustrators have stood unmarred for seven years, while some amateurish student boxes have been badly defaced. And apparently taggers won't stand for overtly pretty designs in their hard neighborhood.
"Taggers respond to a graphic style, not a painterly style. Painterly boxes are beautiful, but they're not respected here," Lopez explains. "If we were to do the flowers and stuff you see in the other parts of the city, they'd be tagged up."
Seeing what was happening downtown, many other neighborhoods were inspired to paint their own utility boxes, which until then were targets of unsightly graffiti and sloppy-looking stickers. Several cities, including Toronto and St. Louis, have copied the project as well.
Lopez is currently accepting designs for an upcoming wave of downtown painting, but she refers artists to Hillcrest and North Park if she thinks their designs are better suited to the vibe of those neighborhoods.
Both areas have active painting projects going on right now. Each has a community improvement group overseeing the painting-Uptown Partnership in Hillcrest and North Park Main Street. These organizations have grants and other funding sources to buy materials. The durable sign paints that work best on utility boxes cost around $90 a gallon, so if you go guerilla instead of contacting the community overseers, you'll spend a lot to make your statement in a polychromatic pallet.
Utility-box artists volunteer their time or, in rare cases, get a tiny stipend (so tiny, none of the artists I talked to could remember how much it was). To win the right to paint a box, an artist submits a résumé and pictures of past work, and also sketches a color template of his or her proposed design. A jury of volunteers reviews the proposal. Both Hillcrest and North Park organizers say the selection process is becoming more competitive, and they're beginning to reject more artists than in the past. Also, because it's not that easy to paint on the streets, they don't want totally inexperienced or half-assed artists who might walk away frustrated from half-painted boxes.
Nicki Sucec painted a box last summer on Texas Street and University Avenue so skillful and attractive, it's a marvel someone hasn't tried to steal the box itself. She recalls the project being harder than she expected. "I painted four to six hours a day over several days. I had to try to get there early because it got really hot. I worked very close to the street, and it was really nerve-wracking when buses would come by. Each time there would be a big gust of wind, I'd have to hold onto my sketches".
Sucec, a professional artist who usually focuses on metal sculpture, found that the enthusiasm of the passing public more than made up for environmental exigencies.
"All different types of people came up and thanked me. Someone rode by on their bike screaming, "You go girl!' Two women even pulled over in their car and offered me sunscreen. I had my hands covered in paint, so one of the women actually put the sunscreen on my shoulders."
Sucec's experience suggests people are crying out for art in their neighborhoods. The ubiquitous utility boxes certainly offer an endless supply of canvases.
So many boxes mean that a short traipse through the 'hood exposes pedestrians to a range of artists. The uptown community improvement groups won't approve any remotely provocative or controversial designs, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the boxes are bland or uninspired. Many of them succeed in reflecting the passion and personality of their creators.
For example, on the north side of University Avenue, between Idaho and Utah Streets, sits a curious box dedicated to the glory of the black crow. It turns out the crow is one of muralist Rik Erickson's obsessions.
"There was a show on KPBS where they did a test on a crow," he explains. "They buried some carrion in a little hole and put a paper clip on top. The crow straightened the paper clip and made a hook on the end. They proved crows could make tools and solve problems. It amazed me."