Kaisja Robinson takes a spin around a decorated utility box in the Kingfield neighborhood in Minneapolis.

., Kingfield Neighborhood Association

Painting outside the box

  • Star Tribune
  • July 15, 2012 - 4:51 PM

The city of Minneapolis is about to apply the rule of form covering function to those unsightly gray utility boxes on its streets.

What began as a few pilot beautification and graffiti-reduction efforts could blossom into a citywide color explosion. Later this week, the city's Art in Public Places program will announce an artists' call for 12 designs that neighborhoods will be able to choose from to give signal boxes a makeover.

A handful of neighborhoods have already upgraded the eyesore necessities, often targets for random, not-so-pretty graffiti, with either paintings by artists or wrapped-vinyl designs like those on the sides of buses, and more are applying for permits to do so.

First came the downtown Hennepin Avenue utility-box project, launched in 2008 by the Hennepin Theatre Trust. Through legacy grant money, several local artists, including Miles Mendenhall and Sree Nair, were hired to paint boxes along Hennepin between Spruce Place and Washington Avenue. Over the next few years, the Kingfield and Corcoran neighborhoods adorned some of their boxes with images including flowers, vegetables and whimsical animals.

Muralist Nair, who contributed splashy paintings to both the downtown Hennepin and Corcoran projects, says the boxes make just as fine a canvas as any.

"I like making art that's embedded in people's everyday lives," Nair said. "The reason these boxes are vandalized so often is there's nothing on them and they look dismal. If you punch them up with some flowers, it's less likely they'll get tagged."

One of his two downtown boxes is no more, however; one risk of decorating the boxes is that some become outdated and must be replaced, said Mary Altman, public-arts administrator for the city of Minneapolis.

"The traffic department is in the process of retiming a lot of signals, so we check with them before okaying" a request to paint or cover boxes, she said. Some utility boxes are owned by private companies, like Xcel Energy and Internet provider CenturyLink; separate arrangements must be made with them.

Covering the boxes has deterred graffiti somewhat, she said. As to which holds up longer, the painted versions or the vinyl versions, "We're watching that right now; the vinyl ones you can just wipe off with alcohol."

Nearly two dozen neighborhood associations, including Tangletown, Jordan, Longfellow and the Lake Street Council, have asked Altman's office about adding some color to their own corners, she said. A city permit costs $65. From there, they can either contract with a private vinyl wrap company, which can cost from about $500 to more than $1,000 per box, depending on how many are ordered. A lower-cost option, once the city's 12 pre-approved designs are chosen, is to choose one of those, free of charge (you'll still have to pay for permits and installation).

If you want your neighborhood to get one of the pre-approved designs, or you're an artist who'd like to create one, e-mail:

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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