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Art Populi: Signal Box Art Stops Traffic

Commuting in Tampa Bay can be challenging. Often, drivers can get stuck in traffic and endure plenty of red lights.  But in a few local spots, commuters are seeing those mundane gray signal boxes transformed into colorful, vibrant canvases.

Traffic box art isn't a new thing. They’ve been successful public art projects in cities like Tampa and Fort Lauderdale. And now an arts group in Clearwater is jumping on the trend with a signal box public art project called "Thinking Outside The Box." 

"You see a lot of cities where they pay attention to outdoor design and having sculptural pieces, artistic walkway, whatever they might be, and it just seems like a part of the community feeling that it has a unique identity,” said Beth Daniel, president of the Clearwater Arts Alliance, the group behind the signal box project.

She said the aim is to employ local artists and to inject some fun into the streetscape. Drive through the downtown Cleveland Street district and you will see signal boxes adorned with abstract art in an explosion of colors from bright yellows to vibrant reds.

Daniels said once an artist creates an image, it's digitized and printed on to UV-protected vinyl and wrapped around the signal box. The application isn't technically difficult, but it can still be a bit tricky.

"They have to be done either at dusk or in the morning because the boxes get so hot with our Florida sun that you can't properly apply the vinyl material unless the box is cool,” she said.

Each traffic box art piece costs about $1,000. That includes paying the artist and installing the wrap on each box. The Clearwater Arts Alliance paid for the first three signal boxes and the city’s Downtown Development Board picked up the tab for another five boxes. And recently, the City of Clearwater awarded a grant to pay for 10 more.

Three Tampa Bay artists were chosen for the project's first phase, including Ray Paul, who has created murals at Tampa International Airport and the Glazer Children's Museum, and Tim Boatright, who has produced graphic posters on Franklin Street in downtown Tampa.

Ya La'Ford of St. Petersburg created the art that wraps a signal box at the corner of Cleveland Street and Osceola Avenue. Her piece is called "Golden cross-sections," and she said it lets drivers interact with the art in an unconscious way.

“Whether you realize it or not isn't the important part,” she said. “The fact that it's there trying to get that reaction is what's important to me."

This isn’t La Ford’s first public art project in Tampa Bay. She created the mural in an underground tunnel between Ferg’s Sports Bar and Tropicana Field in St Petersburg and recently participated in that city's SHINE Mural Project.

"When you brighten up a corner with the interface of art, you're not only investing in artists but you're also believing in what their messaging is. We create magic, we create change and movements with different materials,” she said. “The impact is unquestionable."

She said the signal boxes enhance the urban landscape, but also engage the community. And isn’t that what public art is about?

As a reporter, my goal is to tell a story that moves you in some way. To me, the best way to do that begins with listening. Talking to people about their lives and the issues they care about is my favorite part of the job.