SF street artists try to paint city in a different light, turn utility boxes into art

SAN FRANCISCO – On the corner of 22nd Street and Valencia in San Francisco’s Mission District, sits a nondescript utility box designed to control the flow of traffic. For Manuel Carmona it’s blank canvas filled with possibilities. 

“I’m trying to make everybody’s day a little better,” he said. 

Together with fellow painter Gui Lemes, he’s been commissioned to transform a dull cabinet into a work of art. And like any good artist, he’s brought along his model and muse, San Francisco drag legend Juanita MORE!

“When he first told me that he was going to paint me, my response was, ‘I better be pretty!'” she said. 

A queer Mexican-American street artist, Carmona is hoping to shine a spotlight on a community that’s been under attack in recent years, as more and more states pass anti-drag laws. 

“I think drag has this beauty of being too dramatic and it’s always really cool to see,” he said. “People should know we’re famous for that.”

Paint the City
Paint the City project.

Civic Space Foundation

Carmona is one of dozens of local artists taking part in a new initiative to paint 100 utility boxes throughout the city. The project organized by two groups, The Civic Joy Fund and Paint the Void, is designed to fight the narrative that San Francisco is turning into a dystopian hellscape. 

Manny Yakutiel, owner of Manny’s and the co-founder of The Civic Joy Fund, said the idea is to boost the local economy by beautifying the neighborhood while reducing crime and fostering a sense of local pride. 

“We need our customers back,” he said. “We need people to return to Valencia, to return to the Mission to spend money here.”

For Carmona and Lemes, it’s about turning old utility devices into eye-popping works of art by painting outside the box.

“I want people to feel when they see this box that we’re not giving up and that we care for this city.” 

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