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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.”
With dozens more utility boxes now painted by his army of mostly young, urban artists, Gould’s project, which he calls #visualpublicartproject and documents on Instagram, has snowballed. He was recently contracted by the City Heights Business Association to paint over 20 cement trash cans and over 60 utility boxes around the neighborhood. The Adams Avenue Business Association is enlisting his help this month to paint 20 boxes on Adams Avenue and other business improvement districts have expressed interest, too. San Diego Gas & Electric is also working with Gould and his artists on painting an old substation site near Upas and 30th.
“North Park has been great because it’s been the testing ground for asking the question, can this type of public art project happen using these kinds of artists?” he said, standing beside a series of City Heights utility boxes recently painted by artist Eric Wixon. “Because the artists I’m working with aren’t necessarily ones you see putting up art in the public space so accessibly. Typically, there’s too much red tape and politics and it’s more institutional. With public art, as you know, there’s usually tons of committees and all kinds of people who have to sign off on a project.”
He said the artists he works with are so enthusiastic about being given the opportunity to get their art in the public realm, he can draw from a quickly growing pool of painters and get several boxes done in just a few days.
“This is such a fast-moving project that if someone OKs it, we can have 20 boxes painted in a month and it can transform an area or a space really quickly,” he said.
From the Gutter to a Gallery
Gould is a fitting frontman for his fast-growing urban art project. His shop, which sells spray paint amid other art supplies, attracts street artists and other up-and-comers. He’s able to relate to those inexperienced artists, but he also has his master of fine arts and knows how to put together a formal proposal, follow a tight budget and otherwise play the part of an arts professional when interfacing with the business improvement districts.
“I say it all the time; I have one foot in the gutter – in the street – and one foot in the gallery, or the more formal art world,” he said. “I can be very professional on one hand, but I’m very interested in relating to the street level – things that are happening right on the street.”
Artists on Gould’s roster include Don’t Trip, Jorge Gutierrez, Paul Vargas, Quepasomijoo, Sarah Tinker, Denisse Wolf and many more. He said most are young and come to him asking for help getting their work to a wider audience.
“I try to get people involved who don’t have access to this sort of formal way of reaching out to other organizations that might just completely overlook them because they don’t have degrees and they don’t have the right connections,” he said.
Budget or no budget, Gould said his grassroots public art project’s been met with so much praise and enthusiasm, he’ll keep painting utility boxes, street by street, for the foreseeable future.
“Until someone tells me, ‘no, stop doing it,’ then I’m going to keep doing it,” he said.