Why the painted utility boxes around Calgary

Peter Bushe is a lateral thinker. Get this: when tasked with finding a way to clean the graffiti off of the city’s electrical and traffic signal boxes, he thought to himself, “Instead of rushing around to clean it up, why don’t we just avoid it in the first place?” Chalk one up for bureaucrats with imagination.

Bushe is a Streetlight Project Specialist with The City of Calgary roads department. He’d once heard about a highly successful project that took place in Brisbane, Australia in the 1990s. After that city’s most vandalized assets (yup, electrical boxes) were tarted up by commissioned artists they were largely left alone to bask in their colourful glory. In 2010, Bushe was given the green light to pilot such a project here in Calgary; his department promptly put out a call to artists interested in painting one of nine of these unlikely metal canvases along 16th Avenue N.

As stated on the four-page online application form, the hope is that artwork on the utility boxes will function “as a form of communication to a moving audience…” and foster “community pride, discourage graffiti and contribute to a sense of identity for all citizens.” So far, says Bushe, it’s worked like a charm. “It’s definitely been a positive deterrent to graffiti,” he says. “Only one painted box was ‘tagged’ (scribbled over) by vandals.”

In 2011, 37 boxes were painted; this year there are 41 more. With between 800 and 900 boxes in the city, though, there are still plenty of artistic opportunities to go around. Every week of “nice painting weather” Bushe says he receives at least a couple of applications from artists. No wonder it’s a coveted gig: aside from the infinite curbside glory, artists are provided with a painting kit (colours include titanium white, Mars black, quinacridone red, bismuth yellow and phthalo blue) plus masking tape, drop sheet, safety vest and traffic cones. Oh, and they also receive up to $1,000.

Now these “civic assets” aren’t just practical, they’re beautiful, too. After all, utility isn’t everything.

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