Arts & Culture

Tacoma’s traffic utility boxes become canvases for city’s artists

Wrapped! Tacoma's arty traffic boxes

You have traffic, you have traffic lights – and you have traffic boxes, to hold all the electrical signal stuff. Trouble is, they get tagged. A lot. The solution? Art wraps. They're beautiful, they repel graffiti. But they're also pretty tricky to
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You have traffic, you have traffic lights – and you have traffic boxes, to hold all the electrical signal stuff. Trouble is, they get tagged. A lot. The solution? Art wraps. They're beautiful, they repel graffiti. But they're also pretty tricky to

Tacoma intersections just became a little more creative. Don’t worry, the traffic lights still work fine. But the mundane metal boxes that hold all the signal equipment are now canvases for the city’s artists, popping up unexpectedly and injecting a little fun and beauty into the streetscape, thanks to Tacoma’s traffic box wrap project.

Nearly complete, the project covers 44 of the city’s traffic utility boxes with art printed on vinyl sticky wraps. It’s a two-for-one benefit: The wrap not only covers up ugly graffiti — which can’t be cleaned off, due to the metal surface — but prevents more thanks to a paint-repelling laminate. The wraps, similar to those covering promotional vehicles, are weather-durable and last five to 10 years. They’re easy to replace with the same or a different image, and individual panels can be reprinted and replaced for around $40.

44 Tacoma traffic boxes now wrapped in art.

Maybe, most importantly, they’re bringing art into a part of our lives — and our city — that can be pretty drab.

“It’s been exciting to see (them) pop up around the city and hear such positive feedback from people through social media who are discovering these hidden gems during their day-to-day commute,” says Naomi Strom-Avila, cultural arts specialist for the City of Tacoma. “The wraps enliven utilitarian infrastructure, bring artwork into neighborhoods without much public art and make our neighborhoods more beautiful and engaging to be in.”

It’s a really neat way to do public art.

Mindy Barker, wrap artist

Traffic box wraps aren’t a new thing. They’ve been successful public art projects in cities such as Seattle; Minneapolis; Bozeman, Montana; and Portland. They are coming soon to Olympia. Funded jointly by three city departments — Public Works, Neighborhood and Community Services, and Community and Economic Development — the initial 44 wraps are a pilot project costing $45,000. Now, however, the city has a bank of art images which they are licensed to reproduce as needed for future wraps.

While the wraps have received some attention on Facebook and Instagram, the person who’s really seen the public reaction is Travis Selin, the owner of Crimson Graphics, who’s spent July and August installing them around town. Each wrap takes around two hours.

“Most people have been excited and positive about them,” Selin said, as he worked to flatten out a panel on the box at South 48th Street and Pacific Avenue. Printed with Mindy Barker’s design — of black, leaf-vein cutouts over a baby-blue background, with teal shadows of shells and tendrils, and a warm golden top and bottom — the wrap instantly brightens up the chain-link fence and vacant storefront on the noisy corner.

Not everyone likes the wraps. Selin has also received complaints: one from a passer-by who objected to taxpayer money funding art, and another who “didn’t like the design on his property.” Selin calmly pointed out that the utility boxes sit on city-owned right-of-way.

For artists, of course, it’s a golden opportunity to create public art without the fuss of sculpture or mural materials, and to have their work seen by hundreds of people passing through the intersection or waiting at bus stops.

But it’s also been a learning curve.

“I had no idea it would be so clear,” said Barker, as she saw her box for the first time. “Look — you can see the grain of the paper … and there where I smudged the charcoal.”

Barker loves the flexibility of the wrap concept, though, and as an artist who mostly works for clients, she appreciated the opportunity to showcase her own artistic ideas.

“It’s a really neat way to do public art,” says Barker, who also has a wrap in Portland’s project. “It really supports the artists in town. … They really wanted us to experiment and do it in our own style.”

The wraps bring artwork into neighborhoods without much public art, and make them more beautiful and engaging.

Naomi Strom-Avila, City of Tacoma arts specialist

Some of the wraps even offer visual entertainment. Brian Hutchison’s design, at South 19th and Market streets downtown, is a matching game. Tim and April Norris (South 11th and Market streets, East D Street and Puyallup Avenue) have created four-panel image searches based on stylized aerial scenes of the Dome district, with colorful rainbow containers and rail lines. Becky Frehse’s wrap at North 26th and Orchard streets is a mesmerizing optical illusion; a photograph of an actual shadow-box sculpture filled with paint blobs and found objects, the wrap itself seems to have 3-D structure popping out from the metal.

Other designs are just lovely to look at: the giant black-and-white flower head photographs by Kristin Giordano, the whimsy of a girl blowing butterflies by Chelsea O’Sullivan, repeated graphics by Sean Alexander, or a pair of glowing golden saxophones by Isaac Olsen.

Most are anonymous, with no artist name.

“I hope they will become conversation pieces and objects of pride in the different neighborhoods,” says artist Becky Frehse.

“(The wraps are) a surprise,” says Barker. “You’re just driving by and all of a sudden there’s some color. Every city I go to I love to see them.”

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti