Painted utility boxes bring color to San Diego neighborhood

A woman sits in front of a painted mural
Yvette Roman sits next to her artwork titled “Títeres.” The painting is on a utility box outside Hilltop Liquor in the San Diego neighborhood of Sherman Heights.
(Brittany Cruz-Fejeran / San Diego Union-Tribune)

With few spaces for large murals, artists painted 12 utility boxes on high-traffic streets.


While cleaning out her late grandfather’s garage one afternoon, artist Yvette Roman found random trinkets, mementos and toys he kept in storage over the years. One of those finds, a dusty marionette, became the inspiration behind her latest public artwork.

On the corner of Market and 25th streets in the San Diego neighborhood of Sherman Heights, Roman painted a bright pink utility box surrounded with colorful images of puppets — a devil, an old man, the late Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, a woman with a face mask and skeletons.

The “Títeres” art piece, which means puppets in Spanish, is one of a dozen utility box paintings recently completed in the neighborhood by more than 10 artists and community members.


“All communities should have something that defines ... that children can walk past and they could see something of themselves, of their ancestors in the art and the community,” Roman said. “This project was attempting to draw out a different aspect of the community and put it up in art so that everybody can see it and experience it.”

The effort is part of a beautification project led by the Sherman Heights Community Center, a nonprofit that organizes events and projects in the area, said Francisco Soto Jr., program manager for the center.

Sherman Heights is bordered by two highways and the communities of Grant Hill and Logan Heights. Because there are mostly single-family homes in the neighborhood, it can be difficult to find spaces for murals and public artwork, said Soto, who has lived in the community for more than 20 years.

The utility box artwork stopped last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but artists started up again in March. Now along the high-traffic corridors of Market Street, Island Avenue and 25th Street, pedestrians and drivers will find colorful utility boxes with images inspired by the predominantly Latino community.

There are paintings of the Virgin Mary, a serpent dragon the Aztecs called Quetzalcoatl, roses, Aztec warriors, a piñata and some Day of the Dead skulls. They are mostly painted with bright colors, standing out in the largely residential community.


Soto said painting the utility boxes helps address issues with graffiti because the boxes are easy targets for tagging.

The project has been well received by the community, Soto said, with many other neighborhoods asking for the group to paint their utility boxes.

Groups have completed similar projects in such neighborhoods as East Village, Clairemont, Encanto and Kearny Mesa. SDG&E often sponsors utility art projects to provide artists a platform to beautify the region’s communities, said Jessica Packard, spokesperson for the utility.

“Their utility box artwork helps strengthen community identity, as artists typically weave in themes or history that are important to the communities where the artwork is located,” she said.

The community center and artists would like to paint more boxes in Sherman Heights, but they must seek additional funding.

“It’s a sense of pride,” Soto said. “Something visual that brings up the community.”

Lopez-Villafaña writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.