Civic Pride in Civil Art: About Those Ubiquitous Painted Boxes

by Madison Hankins

A few years ago, driving down Houston’s major streets, I wouldn’t have noticed the bulky traffic-signal control cabinets that ubiquitously squat along the city’s crowded roads—at least before the city gave UP Art Studio permission to start painting them in 2015. Now drivers’ and pedestrians’ days are made a little brighter when beating rush-hour traffic down streets like Bellaire Boulevard and Briar Forest Drive. Our city, as well as others, have commissioned control cabinets to be painted brightly in different styles, conveying the eclectic nature of Houston’s diverse community. Some boxes are realistic, but others are entirely abstract. However, they are all unique. The idea for this beautification initiative, called “Mini Murals,” came from UP Art Studio, a company started by husband and wife, Noah and Elia Quiles.

In a recent conversation, Mrs. Quiles said the couple wanted a public art project they could do in Houston that hadn’t been done before. Their hope was that the project could affect the whole city, as communities outside the loop are largely forgotten. The painted boxes were springing up all over the world, like in Canada and Australia, so she asked, “Why not in Houston?” The Quiles took the idea to the City of Houston’s public works and traffic control, and the branch was excited to get behind the project.  Although UP Art was glad to know the City of Houston was supportive, the problem was that there was no funding. Advised to seek out fiscal support, their first source of funding eventually came from City Councilman Larry Green’s District K. Green was an ally who saw the cultural excellence this initiative represented. His funding came from the Council District Service Fund. Thanks to support from other council members and sponsors, UP Art was able to start the initiative in June of 2015. They have now completed the city’s 200th box.

The art on each box is determined by the sponsor who funds it. Sponsors will sometimes consult their local community for input. UP Art Studio vets all 50 of the artists who are chosen by a panel of art experts, community stakeholders, artists, and city representatives. When asked what the boxes have done thus far for Houston’s communities, Mrs. Quiles stated, “It’s beautifying them. It accomplishes civic pride through civic art,” which is their mission statement.

Since each box is painted by a different artist, they are all done in different styles. One on Irvington is painted with a mind towards pop art. It colorfully portrays a young Frida Kahlo with her signature unibrow, and a pink bow in her hair. There are vibrant stripes on the side of the box.

There is a very detailed one on Bellaire Blvd. It portrays a woman in geisha makeup who is adorned in an intricate red kimono. She is surrounded by cherry blossoms. On the other side of the box is a beautiful young lady in a hijab. This box, near Chinatown, is appropriate in showing Houston’s racial diversity. However, whether the boxes are inside or outside the Loop, people from all walks of life get to enjoy civic pride through civil art.

Maddy Hankins is a sophomore in the Honors College at HBU. She is studying psychology and Spanish.

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