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Federal Way considers murals on utility boxes to deter graffiti
While in California a few months ago, Federal Way Arts Commission member Gary Gillespie saw big metal utility boxes that were painted.
“It made it look like the community cared,” he recalled.
Gillespie initially had interest in incorporating murals in Federal Way but discovered the city didn’t have the space for the large pieces of art.
But the utility boxes sparked an idea.
Gillespie did some research and realized utility boxes have been painted on for some time and it was happening all over the country.
He said while the idea isn’t new, it’s fairly new to the Northwest. He only knows of a couple in Seattle.
Gillespie brought up the idea in an Arts Commission meeting, which was met with positive feedback. He then met with Mayor Jim Ferrell, who suggested he present it to the Federal Way City Council.
“This is an intriguing idea and a fresh take on community beautification by creating graffiti-proof art installations where now we have unattractive utility boxes,” Ferrell said. “All of us have a role to play in realizing the city we want to have. Gary deserves a lot of credit for leading the way on this idea. I’m excited to see where it leads.”
Gillespie presented the mini-murals project idea as the Utility Box Art Pilot Program to the Council on June 17.
“Part of the reason they’re done around America is because they discourage tagging and graffiti,” he told the Council.
Chris Carrel, a spokesman for the city of Federal Way, said graffiti removal has been a consistent high priority for the city and Council for years — even in times of a leaner budget.
“The city believes allowing graffiti to spread leads you to bad places,” he said. “It’s definitely a high priority.”
Gillespie said he discovered through his research that many graffiti artists and taggers would steer clear of the painted mini-murals on utility boxes because they respected the art and didn’t want to ruin it.
“There’s a lot of data showing that it discourages tagging,” he said. “I’m really surprised more cities don’t do this.”
The pilot program, if funded, would cover five strategically chosen utility boxes to outfit with chosen art in a vinyl format.
The art would be digitized and applied to the vinyl, which would cost about $500 to print for each box of average size.
While some of the art has already been chosen, Gillespie said a potential future art contest would be a great way to get the community involved in the project.
And while community input is important, using the art as a way to strengthen Federal Way’s identity through local and historical ties is one of Gillespie’s main goals.
“As we do things, I’d like the artwork to have a Federal Way or Puget Sound feeling,” he said, adding that he’s interested in connecting with the Federal Way Historical Society and other local organizations.
“Salmon, Mount Rainier — fun art. The cool thing about this is it’s our public art right where people can see it, not hidden in a gallery or anything.”
Gillespie said there are hundreds in San Diego, California and Boise and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho have also started the utility box art.
The Council showed overall support for the project but Gillespie still faces uncertainty in how the pilot project would be funded — about $2,500 in vinyl digitization and application alone. Carrel said there may be an opportunity for some private sponsorship opportunities or maybe a public/private partnership.
Gillespie also needs to pinpoint which utility boxes and their locations will be viable and whether or not the owners are interested. Puget Sound Energy owns a good majority in Federal Way, Carrel said.
Although it depends on the specific process, Carrel estimates the process could take between three to six months before it becomes a reality.
Gillespie hopes the mini-murals could make an appearance before the end of summer.
“If people like it, if it’s received positively, we’ll do more,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to it.”
The Arts Commission will review the pilot program again before making a recommendation to the City Council if they approve of the project. Arts Commission meetings are from 7:30-9 a.m. on the first Thursday of each month.
Left, a plain utility box in Federal Way. The illustration (right) shows lupine flowers blooming in the spring at Weyerhaeuser. Contributed photo