Electrical boxes before and after being painted (Photos: Sarah Kraus).

Fighting graffiti with public art

Bell Aliant hires local artists to paint murals on electrical boxes in the hopes of preventing graffiti

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When artist Claire MacKenzie was offered a job painting murals on electrical boxes last year, she jumped on the opportunity.

Bell Aliant, one of Canada's largest telecommunications companies, paid MacKenzie to paint five electrical boxes in Dartmouth.

The company has commissioned more than 600 murals to be painted since it began in 2005 as part of Halifax Regional Municipality's "Graffiti Management Program."

The electrical boxes were MacKenzie's first outdoor public art piece. Although she "had to battle the elements - the wind and the cold," she loved how working outside allowed her to engage with the public.

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HRM's electrical boxes before and after the murals are painted (Photos: Sarah Kraus) (Music: Karl Jonasson).

MacKenzie says "painting at a studio can be very isolating."

She spent an average of 20 hours working on each box, cleaning it, sanding it, priming it and then finally - painting it.

After the paint sets, Bell Aliant sends someone out to cover the finished mural with a coat of anti-graffiti sealant. This allows graffiti to be washed off more easily.

MacKenzie says while she can't directly link her electrical box murals with an increase in her artwork sales, "it's good for artists to get the exposure. It makes you feel like your work is appreciated and respected."

Benefits for artists

The current lead artist for Bell Aliant, Annemarie Johnson, has been organizing the mural painting for almost six years.

She says, "Halifax has a really, really bad history of graffiti, especially on Aliant boxes. They're a nice cream colour initially - like a blank canvas."

A mural painter by trade, Johnson oversaw the painting of 315 electrical boxes in 2011. This winter's unseasonably warm weather allowed the artists to continue their work past the usual end date at the end of November.

Johnson encourages the artists to express themselves, as long as their design is suitable for the area. Their work has been well-received she says, as Bell Aliant "got a lot of compliments on the variety of artwork appearing on the boxes."

Beyond beautifying neighborhoods and reducing graffiti vandalism, Johnson says the project also "provides money for artists who would otherwise be working menial jobs to get by."

While Johnson normally works with professional, established artists, she says this year she hopes to be able to hire a few creative students.

Robyn Touchie, the student union president at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, says painting the murals could open a window of opportunity for students who don't mind working for a big company.

"It would be a great way for students to make money for school and have their art seen," she says.

Program History

Keith Bennett, who initially oversaw the mural project for Bell Aliant when it began in 2005, says the electrical boxes became more prominent in public spaces due to an expansion in high-speed Internet service.

With boxes popping up more frequently in residential areas, vandals began tagging them with graffiti. The boxes became an eyesore, and city councillor Debbie Hum suggested they be painted to make them more aesthetically appealing.

"There certainly has been a lot of evidence that artwork like this deters graffiti," says Bennett. But he adds that certain areas of the city - near Dalhousie University and downtown especially - still face serious graffiti problems.

Bennett says Bell Aliant occasionally teams up with police to force graffiti vandals to perform their community service by painting a mural.

He says the murals are commissioned for new boxes, as well as those being repaired - meaning old infrastructure is often left blank.

The Halifax Regional Municipality runs a similar mural program with its traffic control boxes, but this year the budget is going towards cleaning up older boxes rather than painting new ones.

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