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  • Frankie Smith

From Eyesores to Embellishment: Utility Box Art is Connecting the Los Angeles Community

Three years ago, I was on my way to school when I saw someone coving a gray utility box with light pink paint. Throughout the week, other designs began to appear: succulents, colors of all different shades, and a signature along with an Instagram handle. I started to reflect on this art as painted electrical boxes have been popping up in my local community exponentially over the past five years.

California native plants painted by Lena Del Sol on the corner of Whitsett Avenue and Burbank Boulevard. Photo courtesy of Let’s Paint Sherman Oaks.

Hiding on several corners of Los Angeles County cities such as Sherman Oaks, Studio City, Encino, and Valley Village, are large, dull electrical boxes. Alongside the other technological innovations in modern society, the boxes blend in with the increasingly colorless world. However, local artists are changing this–using the boxes as blank canvases for beautiful, expressive, and cultural art. Between the black asphalt, concrete sidewalks, and electrical towers, these pockets of color are connecting our community and sending messages promoting social change.

Artists can get involved through the Sherman Oaks Chamber Foundation: “a 501c(3) non-profit that fosters community improvement through targeted investments in public art, beautification, art events and other enhancements to the physical aesthetic of our neighborhood.” The foundation is connected to Let’s Paint Sherman Oaks, where local artists can submit their designs and sign up to receive grants in order to create their art. Between the cost of materials and the monthly maintenance fees, a painted utility box typically costs about $600.

Lena del Sol, the Afro-Puerto Rican artist I saw painting the utility box next to my house three years ago, got involved by contacting the city of North Hollywood which connected her to an art organization calling for artists. She submitted a design sketch and got chosen for the job. “They wanted different types of flora and fauna native to Southern California. So that's why I chose cacti. They assign you utility boxes, and you complete it,” she said.

Laishan Ito's utility box depicting traditional Chinese music and dance. Located in the city of El Monte. Photo courtesy of Laishan Ito.

Some artists simply google opportunities in their area and then apply. Laishan Ito, a public artist with a background in graphic design, got involved with Let’s Paint Sherman Oaks through a quick internet search. “They're very open to ideas, as long as it's positive and it's neighborhood friendly,” she said. “I feel like I get the freedom that I usually don't have as a designer.”

Painted by artists of all different backgrounds, the boxes convey aspects of culture from Latinx, African American, Asian, and other ethnic communities. On the corner of Moorpark and Tyrone in Sherman Oaks, stands a utility box mural of Samantha Schultz, a Canadian-Filipina musician, painted by Laishan Ito. Her inspiration came from both Schultz’s background and the Stop Asian Hate movement that gained traction on social media during the pandemic. “She wants to have artwork where it shows how music connects people and also represents her ethnic background,” Ito explained.

Samantha Schultz looking into the Filipino sun with native Filipino plants in the back-

ground. Laishan Ito painting her “Resist Hate, Spread Love” box outside of the Sherman Oaks Martin Pollard Branch Library. Photo courtesy of Laishan Ito.

Through collaborating with the inspiration and the artist’s vision, the utility box was born. Ito came up with the idea of her playing music and looking into the Filipino sun. The message is furthered by a subtle yet intrinsic element. “In the background, it has the Asian motif that kind of connects all the Asian communities together without being like, ‘Okay, let's put flags everywhere,’ kind of thing,” she said. The motif is various native plants from the Philippines including Algo, medicinal plants, Anthurium, Flamingo Lily and Gardenia. The plants are meant to represent Schultz’s Asian heritage, but also friendship, prosperity, good luck, and peace.

Messages to the local community are also embedded by utility box art. Regarding her box, Lena del Sol wants to remind people that, “We have nature available all around us. You just need to look up.”

Laishan Ito’s hand painted utility box outside of Pavillions. Photo courtesy of Laishan Ito.

Additionally, Laishan Ito painted a box next to the new Pavilions on Ventura Bvld. which depicts little food icons and hearts. By promoting healthy eating, she aims to bring people together through food.

Beyond their amazing public art, both Sol and Ito have personal missions as artists. Sol describes that, “a lot of artists approach their art or their practice, like ‘this is for me, this is about my vision and about what I want to say to the world.’ I do that to some degree, but when it comes to public art, I feel like you can't approach it that way…When it comes to public art, I believe that it's for the people because it's public, it's there for people to see and for people to enjoy.”

Ito said that she often feels as if she is overthinking her work because she constantly searches for its meaning. Although, she said, “I hope to inspire other artists to do their own work and express themselves and continue the whole goodness of sharing artwork with the public.”

Although these artists have been working professionally for years, anyone can get involved and express their creative artistic talents. To submit a design, the Let's Paint Sherman Oaks website has templates where you can sketch your idea and then upload it.

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