Sacramento artists transform utility boxes into works of art

Artist Melissa Uroff’s newest piece is not on a canvas or in a frame – it’s on a utility box on the corner of 16th and J Streets in midtown Sacramento. Each side of the box depicts a sepia, vintage-style portrait of one of the artist’s friends or family members, made colorful with splashes of paint.

Uroff’s work is part of a growing, national movement transforming necessary urban objects into works of art.

With the unveiling of the Capitol Box Art Project last weekend, Sacramento joins more than 20 cities across the country, from New Orleans to Minneapolis to Boise, Idaho, that have invited artists to put their stamp on utility boxes in an effort to beautify streetscapes and create awareness of local art.

“Other folks doing similar projects were an initial inspiration,” said Todd Leon, R Street development manager for the Capitol Area Development Authority, the city-state agency that funded and collaborated with the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission on the Capitol Box Art Project.

Leon studied several other cities’ approaches, including Berkeley’s Streets Alive! Utility Box Project and San Jose’s Art Box Project SJ, to develop Sacramento’s approach.

Utility boxes are good candidates for beautification for practical as well as artistic reasons, Leon said.

“They are graffiti-magnets. In our particular area, there are quite a few of them that get tagged and painted over by the city. But the city can’t get to all of the tags. Maybe we can get the respect of some of these taggers out there by putting some art on these boxes.”

The boxes also get car and foot traffic passing by, offering artists a diverse audience for their work. That’s attractive to illustrator Erik Hosino, who designed one of the 31 boxes included in the Sacramento project. On one side of his box, a cartoonlike robot places his index finger to his lips while reaching around the other side of the box for a little boy’s balloon.

“Being right there on the corner of a downtown intersection, a cross section of society might see it. It might be a gallery owner or publisher or someone who wants to commission a piece of art,” Hosino said.

CADA and SMAC selected 20 professional artists out of 73 applicants based on their past work and paid them $500 each to create designs for the utility boxes. Funding for the project came from a combination of CADA’s rental and property management income, as well as property taxes. Sacramento company Pro Wraps printed the designs on vinyl wrappings that were installed on the boxes between July 23 and August 5.

At the least, the artworks are conversation-starters and expose people passing by to a variety of art; they range in medium from photography to illustration to fabrics, and portray everything from children’s toys to a photo collage of midtown’s architectural details to home cooking.

“You should’ve seen people’s faces light up as we put up the art,” Leon said.

It’s too early to tell if turning the utility boxes into art pieces will deter graffiti. On a box at the corners of 16th and L Streets – where artist Jim Piskoti portrayed a woman and a man passing each other on the street – a prankster has already drawn a mustache on the woman.

Although the mustache is small and almost unnoticeable to passers-by, Piskoti was disappointed to see it.

“Maybe I’m more sensitive because it’s my piece. Just from a personal viewpoint, I’d like the piece to be there awhile before it shows deterioration.”

Fortunately, the wrapping on the boxes is coated with a material that makes graffiti removal easy. CADA requested the help of the Midtown Business Association and Downtown Sacramento Partnership to remove graffiti from the boxes within those organizations’ boundaries. CADA staff will maintain the other boxes along the Capitol Mall.

Leon hopes the wraps will last three years, at which point CADA will relaunch the project.

“We’ll do another round of art or reapply the same ones if people are particularly enamored,” Leon said.

In the meantime, Midtown worker Amrit Saini appreciates the new look of the utility boxes.

“Instead of graffiti, you have this clean box with some nice pictures on it. I think it looks nice, you know?”