CAMBRIDGE — The words “utility box” and “canvas” don’t often go together, but in Harvard Square they now do.
This spring, local artists working with the Harvard Square Business Association gave makeovers to 12 utility boxes. The boxes used to come in two shades: black and graffiti’d. Now they’re the colors of the rainbow — and then some. Impressionistic sunflowers, spray-painted sunsets, and abstract splatters are among the designs that decorate the boxes.
The artists involved in the Harvard Square project were all local to Cambridge. Contributors included Harvard students, grade-school children enrolled at the Community Art Center, and street artists who make and sell work in Harvard Square. All artists were paid a stipend for their work.
Utility boxes are circuit boxes that are scattered across street corners and sidewalks. They house traffic-light control mechanisms, streetlight wiring, cable and phone connections, light-rail switches, and other vital electrical equipment. On the outside they just look like boxes. Dan Andrew, director of hospitality for the HSBA, described utility boxes as the “guts of the city” that invisibly keep it running.
“You get so used to the boxes being black that you almost don’t see them anymore,” Andrew said. “Now people are noticing them all the time.”
The idea to revamp utility boxes came from members of the HSBA who were frustrated with the constant appearance, erasure, and reappearance of graffiti on the boxes. “We wanted local artists and children to use these as blank canvases instead,” said Denise Jillson, the association’s executive director.
This is not the first project of its kind in Greater Boston. PaintBox, a program run through the Boston Art Commission , encourages local artists to apply to paint utility-box-canvases. It was launched in 2008 and its website lists 111 boxes painted in neighborhoods from Allston to Dorchester. The Art Commission is still encouraging artists to apply.
The Harvard Square boxes are here to stay, until they need to be replaced or until too much graffiti accumulates, Andrew said. Generally, Jillson said, graffiti artists “respect the code” and leave existing art alone. But they don’t always — a pink tag covers one side of the box painted by children of the Community Art Center.
Andrew said they’re planning to have one of the artists touch it up. “Having local artists involved is great because they can kind of police the art more actively,” he said. A few have already touched up their work.
Antonio Maycott has been a presence in the square for more than 20 years; he sits by the Harvard Square T entrance, where he makes and sells spray-paint pieces. He spray-painted two boxes for this project, and selected some of his most popular designs — including a unicorn flying toward the moon, and two pandas under a bright, streaky sky.
Maycott said he enjoyed the chance to contribute something more permanent to the square, where he sets up shop almost every day in all seasons.
Eryn Johnson, executive director of the Community Art Center, said that seeing their work permanently in Harvard Square has been powerful for kids in the program. “We felt that it was really important for young people to have their images and values represented in the community, and this project was the perfect way to do that,” Johnson said.
More photos of the utility boxes: