City project will transform utility boxes with vibrant art

Design by artist Mariana Garibay for a utility box on Center Street sponsored by Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and his wife Loni Hancock

By Tina Zhu

There are 60 different utility boxes in downtown Berkeley and they are all gray. But not for long.

A new civic art project has plans to transform these dull, bleak and utilitarian boxes, which are owned either by the city or by PG&E,  into a kalidescope of color and art.

Called the “60 Boxes Project,” the idea is to pair patrons with artists who will paint the boxes or make a design that can be transferred to large polymer stickers and be affixed to the boxes.


“We’ve had a very very positive response to this project,” said Elyce Klein, who is coordinating sponsorships for the group, a collaboration between the Earth Island Institute‘s Streets Alive! program and Berkeley’s Civic Arts Commission.  “The quality of artwork on the boxes will be very high.”

A wide range of sponsors have already pledged their support for the initiative, including Berkeley High School, Peet’s Coffee, the Downtown Berkeley Association, numerous private schools, businesses, individuals, public officials, and non-profit organizations — even the city’s Mayor, Tom Bates.

Now the 60 Boxes Projects is putting out a call for artists to participate. They must fill out a form and submit examples from their portfolio. Each sponsor will get to choose their own artist. The theme is “sustainability.”

Map shows location of utility boxes that are available for artistic transformation

The artists who are chosen will receive a $300 to $400 stipend for a four-sided design. There is a separate call for artists age 18 or younger to submit designs for the boxes. Youth artists will receive a $200 stipend if chosen.

Most of the pieces will be printed on large polymer stickers that will last for three years but may also be painted directly onto the boxes. The Berkeley Civic Arts Commission’s Visual Arts Selections panel will make the final approvals.

Mayor Bates and his wife, State Senator Loni Hancock, are co-sponsoring a box at the corner of Shattuck and Center. Artist Mariana Garibay will design the art for the box.

“I have always been interested in maps and the idea of cities as a huge interconnected system or organism,” said Garibay, who spent a few months working on the final image. “I decided to create a new map for the city, one that describes Berkeley as a network of walkways, bikeways and parks. This map is a clean-energy grid that gets activated by people walking and biking all around Berkeley.”

Portfolios must be submitted to the Earth Island Institute by July 1. For more information, visit the 60 Boxes Project website.

The city of Palo Alto held a utility box art competition in 2004. The utility boxes of Emeryville are decorated uniformly with graphic black figures on a yellow background. The Temescal area of Oakland has a number of painted utility boxes. And San Francisco General Hospital recently had a competition to paint steel hearts, many of which are still on display around the city.

Tina Zhu is a student at Berkeley’s very own University of California and has a passion for writing and exploration. She is currently interning for Berkeleyside.