Sherman Heights’ painted utility boxes bring color to neighborhood

Artist Yvette Roman sits next to her art, a painting of various puppet faces on a utility box in Sherman Heights
Artist Yvette Roman sits next to her art she calls “Titeres.” The painting is on a utility box outside Hilltop Liquor in Sherman Heights.
(Brittany Cruz-Fejeran/The 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 Sherman Heights she has 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 local 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 pandemic, but artists started up again in March. Now along the high traffic corridors of Market Street, Island Avenue and 25th Street pedestrians and others driving by 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 all are mostly painted with bright colors, standing out in the mostly residential community.

Yvette Roman poses next to her work of art she named "Titeres" outside Hilltop Liquor in San Diego, CA.
(Brittany Cruz-Fejeran/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

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 others neighbors asking for the group to paint other 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 local artists a platform to beautify the region’s communities, said Jessica Packard, an SDG&E spokesperson.

“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,” Packard 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.”

Other artists involved in the effort included Gerardo Meza, Juliana Garcia, Daniel Pozos, Rory Morrison, Brenda Wade, Somner Lee Santos, Marisa Contreras, Misael Ruiz, Jose Luna, Rosa Maria Sanchez, and Josefa Magaña.