The Art Inventory

Urban ArtWorks Converts A Signal Box Into An Art Canvas

by Kirby Lindsay, posted 20 June 2012


A signal box, and one of Fremont's most visible, at the intersection of Fremont Ave & N 34th St Photo by K. Lindsay, Jun '12

When someone explains what a ‘signal box’ is, supposing that they know, a commonly used adjective is ‘ugly.’  The boxes, located at lighted traffic intersections around Seattle, are large, rectangular, grey and – due to regular and repeated vandal attacks – ugly.

Urban ArtWorks, a well-respected non-profit that empowers at-risk youth through community art projects, has developed a solution – Paint ‘em!  Since 2009, ArtWorks has coordinated funding (from donors and grants,) gotten City permits, hired & paid artists, and enlisted the sweat equity of some of their youth, to decorate nearly 50 signal boxes around Seattle.

Permitted Art For West Edge

Kathleen Warren, Program Director for ArtWorks, said the first permitted painting of a signal box took place in cooperation with the Downtown Seattle Association for the West Edge area of Downtown.  The theme of the designs on the boxes was ‘People In The Neighborhood,’ and they decorated 28 signal boxes on 1st Avenue, 2nd Avenue and Western Avenue between Virginia Street and Cherry Street.

What a signal box could become - at 100 Broadway East, on Capitol Hill Photo by Becca Delima and provided by Urban ArtWorks

For the designs, they used “in house” ArtWorks artists Jesse Brown and Todd Lown.  These artists have worked before with the youth, and the ArtWorks program, but Lown’s work is also known to Fremonsters by his 46th Street Mural design – a piece the ArtWorks’ youth helped paint.  For the signal boxes, Brown and Lown depicted dogwalkers, ferry riders, business people, an orchestra conductor (outside Benaroya Hall,) laptop users, a baker, a kid eating an ice cream cone, kid on a bicycle, travelers, etc.

“It ended up more expensive than we expected,” Warren admitted about the first effort, “we learned by trial-and-error…”  The first paint they used didn’t work – and peeled off the metal surfaces.  Warren and the City also learned, together, what the permit process would be – and what designs would be allowed, and what would not.

For this project, the Department of Neighborhoods awarded a Matching Grant of $8832 (in 2008.)  Donations from area businesses, the Downtown Seattle Association and ArtWorks coffers were used to match the grant, along with considerable sweat equity of volunteers – including the artists.  The money covered the materials to paint the boxes (more than once,) the permits, and follow-up maintenance by Urban ArtWorks for one year.

Moving On To Georgetown, SODO, & Capitol Hill

Next, ArtWorks served as Project Manager for the painting of three boxes in Georgetown, paid for with a City of Seattle Office of Economic Development (OED) grant.  According to Warren, ArtWorks worked with “various groups” in Georgetown, and tried to get local artists involved.  Ultimately, they used three different artists for the three boxes, but they didn’t involve the youth in the physical painting.  By this time they had modified the costs – allowing $1,000 per box – so that the artist got paid half.

What signal boxes often are - a postered mess located on Fremont Avenue & N 36th Street Photo by K. Lindsay, Jun '12

ArtWorks went on to paint boxes in the SODO neighborhood, where the non-profit started.  The OED awarded a $3,000 grant to the SODO Business Association, and ArtWorks went to local business owners and raised approximately $5,000 in match money.  As Warren recently observed, this was, “very much a project done as we found funding.”  The proximity of the boxes to the ArtWorks offices did allow them to send out groups of kids to paint, under the supervision of a staff youth mentor artist, as the organization found time and funds.

It was here, Warren admitted, that “we learned if we got one permit for the whole neighborhood,” it cost less and allowed them to paint more boxes.  Originally, they only expected to paint five boxes in SODO, but eight got done.  They also got more creative with the designs – Jesse Brown, Zach Rockstad and Gordon Swanson designed three of the boxes, but professional artists Emily Taibleson and Kevin Drake helped youth design others.

Development, And Follow-Thru, On The Rules

Over time, the City of Seattle also grew more comfortable with Warren, and aware that ArtWorks would abide by the design rules.  “It’s to everyone’s benefit for us to follow their rules,” Warren admitted.  The designs can’t incorporate logos, or specific business activities.  Designs can’t contain ‘too many colors,’ Warren reported, although occasionally she’s campaigned on behalf of a design originally denied.  Also, designs can’t be ‘too distracting’ for passers-by, or detract from nearby public art works.

The 'poppy box' in front of the restaurant Poppy, and the building with the floral crown. Photo by Becca Delima and provided by Urban ArtWorks

On Capitol Hill, ArtWorks recently painted nine boxes and the boundary on advertising got careful scrutiny.  An artist submitted a design for big, orange flowers.  The City objected, declaring the flowers to be poppies, and the design an advertisement for an adjacent restaurant called Poppy.  Warren went back to the artist and he pointed out that the building – which predates the restaurant (and probably the signal box) – has decorative, concrete flowers as a feature of the roofline crown.  Most likely the restaurant chose their name based on this architectural detail, as did the artist.  The City approved the design.

And Next…In Fremont?

In early June 2012, Warren attended a meeting with representatives from the Fremont Chamber of Commerce, Fremont Neighborhood Council and the Fremont Arts Council.  The representatives gave the idea of decorating signal boxes around the Center of the Universe an enthusiastic response…provided that a volunteer can be found, in Fremont, to coordinate the project.

Kathleen Warren, Program Director for Urban ArtWorks, with the giraffe from a previous project she held with in Fremont, the Todd Lown 46th Street Mural. Photo by Lauren Stewart

In nearly every community, ArtWorks has coordinated with the community.  “I feel like Capitol Hill and Georgetown did a good job reaching out,” she remarked, and this month ArtWorks will start work on three boxes in Belltown.  For these, Warren is “hoping to get all the money from sponsors and donors,” instead of using grant money.

In Fremont, Warren insisted, “I would really, really like to involve Fremont artists.”  A local coordinator would know how to send out a Fremont-comprehensive RFQ, as well as who to approach for local support – and funding – and local opinion on which signal boxes to paint first.

Urban ArtWorks would be available for the hard work.  The boxes get tagged with graffiti, and vandalized with posters, repeatedly.  The City Of Seattle eventually comes out to repaint the boxes grey, Warren observed, “and created layers of paint and posters on the West Edge boxes.”  The preparation of the signal boxes – before any paint can be applied – is labor intensive.  The youth can spend a day or two removing layers of stringy posters and paint.

“They had a neighbor on Capitol Hill,” Warren related, “that used to go around removing the posters,” from signal boxes.  As the artist and youth went out to paint each box, the older gentleman would stop by, she said, and give them hugs, “so happy to be relieved of his job.”

Again, what a signal box (on Capitol Hill) can become, with the help of Urban ArtWorks Photo by Becca Delima

As to graffiti, after two years of checking on the painted boxes in West Edge, ArtWorks has had two paint outs – once due to scribbled initials and the other due to chips in the paint.

Fremont already has public art that inspires, honors and/or enlivens.  Why not welcome art that converts the ugly into a canvas.  To follow up on this project – or volunteer to take the lead in getting Fremont’s signal boxes decorated – contact Fremont Chamber Executive Director, Jessica Vets, at or 206/632-1500.

Also, check out video on Urban ArtWorks, and see some more of the existing painting signal boxes on the Facebook page.

In early June, Warren suggested that Fremont decorate its signal boxes, and start with a core area – like all the boxes on Fremont Ave, or a few boxes at key intersections in the central business district.  The suggestion comes from experience, as she has found a few painted boxes help the community visualize the effect, and get behind the project.

Urban ArtWorks is ready to help bring art to Fremont – and the City will help.  Will you?

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©2012 Kirby Lindsay.  This column is protected by intellectual property laws, including U.S. copyright laws.  Reproduction, adaptation or distribution without permission is prohibited.


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