When you live in a place as personality-heavy as San Diego, art is everywhere you turn. As someone who frequently stops to take photos of sidewalk chalk designs and intricately painted rocks, I think there’s one medium of street art that goes unfairly ignored: utility box murals.
Small and set off to the side, these mini murals don’t get near the attention as their larger, building-sized counterparts. No one is posing for photos or hashtagging them on Instagram. And yet, when you take a moment to view them up close—as opposed to outside the window of a moving car—you’ll be amazed at how much artistry these formerly mundane city fixtures contain.
While I’m sure a few boxes are the result of artistic vigilantism, most are commissioned by neighborhood groups, businesses, and even residents. Muralist Isabel Garcia is the proud owner of two utility box designs, one on the corner of 30th Street and El Cajon Boulevard in North Park and another on Palm Avenue in Chula Vista. Her goal in painting them was simple: give people something pretty to look at.
“It’s a form of beautification that also gives space to street art,” she said. “Honestly, I just wanted to make something cool and visually engaging.”
If you want to pay homage to the micro-murals of San Diego, below are six streets lined with inspirational, creative, and quirky designs that every public art connoisseur can appreciate.
North Park: 30th Street
If there was one neighborhood where utility box murals were guaranteed, it’s North Park. This ultra-hip, ultra-artsy community is home to dozens of these miniature masterpieces, including three by artist Collin Vowels, who goes by the name Blue Funk. His bold palette and signature eyes that appear across most of his work are unmistakable, even on a small scale.
“I’m partially colorblind, so I like using vibrant colors that are easy for me to see,” he said. “I like to paint stuff without a full-on idea and just let creativity take over and see what comes out of it.”
To see pieces by Blue Funk and other local creatives, head down to 30th Street. Between Gunn Street and El Cajon Boulevard, you’ll find a mix of alien-like creatures, abstract shapes, and positive messages. You can also veer off down University Avenue in either direction to hunt for more eye-catching designs.
Mira Mesa: Mira Mesa Community Park
Drive a little further inland, and you’ll find a substantial collection surrounding Mira Mesa Community Park. Walking the loop from Mira Mesa Boulevard to Camino Ruiz puts you on the path of many whimsical designs. The above piece created by artist Deanna Nguyen was her first-ever foray into mural painting, making me an even bigger fan.
“When I was younger, I used to really love doing crafts and being creative,” she said. “I think when you grow up, there’s not a lot of space for that. Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to reconnect with that sense of play.”
So, she set a New Year’s Resolution in 2023 to do one public art piece. That goal just so happened to coincide with local art teacher Leo Angelo Reyes’ ongoing effort to beautify local streets via the Public Art Committee of the Mira Mesa Town Council. He’s responsible for both organizing these roadside museums and painting some one-of-a-kind utility boxes himself. His little library across the street from the actual Mira Mesa Library is my personal favorite.
Barrio Logan: Cesar E. Chavez Parkway
We can’t have a conversation about street art without mentioning Barrio Logan. While you’ll definitely subject yourself to multiple sky-high murals in this mecca of public self-expression, keep your eye out for those smaller gems—especially considering the big names behind them.
Amongst the mini sidewalk gallery that lies at the intersection of Cesar E. Chavez Parkway and Newton Avenue, you’ll find the above black and white piece by political cartoonist Joaquin Junco Jr., A.K.A., Junco Canché. His heavy-hitting statements on current events, history, and contemporary pop culture were a mainstay of the now-defunct San Diego Free Press and the Latino news satire magazine Pocho.
While he’s been somewhat off the grid for the past couple of years, his Twitter account says that he still works as an assistant cartoonist for Lalo Alcaraz. Alcaraz is an award-winning editorial cartoonist from San Diego who created the syndicated daily comic strip “La Cucaracha.”
Ocean Beach, Point Loma: Voltaire Street
There are quite a few parrot- and sunset-themed utility boxes dotting the blocks down this bustling road, which is to be expected when you’re in OB. But as you make your way past the unofficial Point Loma neighborhood line (which I personally believe to be Nimitz Boulevard), the themes become more and more whimsical. Artist Mackie Mason’s reimagined fairytale is one standout example.
Commissioned by the Point Loma Association—which is responsible for funding 50 transformer box murals in the neighborhood—the goal of her piece was to align with the Point Loma/Hervey Library across the street. So she took the classic, slightly morbid tale of Little Red Riding Hood and gave it a new ending: Little Red and the Wolf bond over books, share the cookies, and become best friends.
“I wanted to include a positive message for all the kids in the neighborhood since a ton of kids walk past this box on their way to and from school,” Mason said. That message? “Despite their differences in the story, these two [characters] could still be friends.”
Normal Heights, University Heights, Kensington: Adams Avenue
Anyone who’s walked down Adams Avenue has likely stumbled across at least one utility box-turned-canvas. From the intersection at Marlborough Drive in Kensington all the way until the road dead-ends in University Heights, you’re bound to find multiple murals that embody the unique personality of whichever neighborhood you’re in. But you’ll find an especially large flurry of eye-catching pieces in the center of it all: Normal Heights.
Not every San Diego community is fortunate enough to have a fervent group of people dedicated to creating and maintaining public art. But Normal Heights does—and it shows. Normal Heights Urban Arts is a volunteer organization that’s been bringing together local artists to literally paint the town red (amongst other colors) since 2016.
This collective is responsible for projects like the utility box butterfly garden that surrounds the Adams Recreation Center, as well as many others throughout the neighborhood. They’re currently expanding the project by installing a mosaic mural titled “Kaleidoscope of Butterflies” on one of the center’s exterior walls, which should be completed this year.
La Mesa: University Avenue
Aptly nicknamed the “jewel of the hills,” La Mesa is unsurprisingly home to many utility box gems. They’re a little more spread out than other neighborhoods, but they seem to be strategically placed on University Avenue as a way to brighten the day (and the commute) of anyone who passes by. At least that’s the case with artist Becca Dwyer’s trio of floral-themed pep talks that sit in front of La Mesa Lumber & Hardware.
“I wanted it to be short so people could kind of glance over while they were driving,” she said, adding that the mural was inspired by a sticker she designed. She even handed out a few to people who walked by while she was painting.
Though Dwyer has always been artistic, it wasn’t until she got laid off from her job during the COVID-19 pandemic that she got into mural painting. She used her first utility box in Vista as a way to get comfortable with the uncomfortable practice of putting yourself out there—and it worked. “When I was painting, I got several ‘good jobs’ or ‘I love it’ as people were driving by,” she said. “It was like an immediate positive impact.”
Design Your Own Utility Box
For as many utility box murals as I came across, there were just as many blank canvases awaiting their transformation. If you have an idea in mind for one of these mini-murals, look into your neighborhood’s business improvement organization.
These groups are responsible for taking care of the maintenance, beautification, and growth of certain commercial corridors. If you want to commission a piece or get involved in their murals program, they’re the ones to contact first.
Outside of neighborhood approval, Dwyer says the only other person you need to give permission to is yourself. “If you see an ugly utility box in your town, you can paint it,” said Dwyer, who has a step-by-step guide on her blog. “You don’t have to be a renowned artist. You just have to fill out an application.”