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Mini Murals Houston


By artist Tra` Slaughter

By artist Tra` Slaughter

Text by Cheryl Alexander / Photography by Morris Malakoff

You’ve seen them. The large, unsightly gray boxes sitting obtrusively beside each and every one of the 2,600+ traffic lights in the city of Houston. You can’t help but see them. And many times you’ve probably wondered what they are and what purpose they serve.

Well, so did Noah and Elia Quiles, owners of UP Art Studio. With what began years ago as graffiti vandalism, these two young visionaries are now thinking outside the box — or to be more literal… they are thinking ON the box — the traffic signal control cabinets to be exact, utilizing those big, ugly boxes as canvases for public art.

Rather than populate their studio space with works of art that people must view only in their gallery or on the walls of their studio, the Quiles have made it their mission to bring art to unexpected places, where there would otherwise be blight, and encourage civic pride through civic art.

The couple has initiated what has now been dubbed the Mini Murals Houston Project by commissioning artists to share their artistic talent with the city by painting on the abundance of traffic boxes that are scattered throughout the city.

The project reimagines traffic signal control cabinets (also referred to as electrical or utility boxes) as blank canvases brimming with creative opportunity, inviting artistic expression for all to enjoy. Once painted, the cabinets are intended to help instill civic pride while beautifying neighborhoods and enhancing the urban landscape of Houston.

Elia actually found the idea for the project online while researching for interesting public art in other cities. She came across projects similar to Mini Murals Houston. She also discovered that Houston has approximately 2,600 of these cabinets and that the Department of Public Works and Engineering (PW&E) is in charge of them. The couple then contacted Jeff Weatherford, the deputy director of the PW&E, who loved the idea of the Mini Murals, but sadly informed the Quiles that the department had no money with which to fund the project.

The Quiles were undeterred and committed to the mission of engaging, educating and moving the community through public art. So when the PW&E challenged them to raise funds for a Houston Mini Murals project, it was a task right up their alley. “In our minds,” said Noah, “this was a low cost-high visual impact public art opportunity.”

At that point, Weatherford turned to the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs (MOCA) and Minnette Boesel, executive director, who gave her approval for the project, and also to the Houston Arts Alliance (HAA) and Sara Kellner, executive director, who also approved.

With these principals in place, the Quiles then emailed all 13 city council members to solicit their support.

Meahwhile, during more research, the Quiles located liquid assets in what is known as the district service fund. Elia explained, “We found that each district in the city — and there are 11 districts — has $1 million to use for discretionary projects, such as infrastructure, speed bumps, curbs AND beautification.”

“Larry Green was the first council member to recognize the cultural excellence of this project,” said Noah, “and he funded the entire pilot phase of the Mini Murals.”

With Noah and Elia at the helm, the pilot phase consisted of 13 hand-picked graffiti and street artists commissioned to paint 31 traffic boxes in City Council District K, and one in District B. Other boxes that have been completed were sponsored by the Houston Zoo, Midtown District, Westchase District, East End Foundation and the City of Bellaire.

With the commencement of phase two, more boxes will be completed in Midtown, Greenspoint, Hobby, Northside and others.

What makes this public art project unique? Foremost is that unlike other public art initiatives, which generally return only about 15-20 percent of monies raised back to the artist and art community, Mini Murals return is a whopping 47 percent. With funds for more than 100 boxes raised to date, that means $100,000 is back in

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