Update to the story at the bottom of the page. A local artist involved in helping build downtown SanTana's public art scene was arrested July 2nd for painting a utility box on Sycamore and Civic Center.
Tony Pedraza, a young muralist and painter from SanTana, painted the gunmetal gray caja after noticing other utility boxes in the city's downtown were being decorated through a city-commissioned art beautification program. Three days into his own project, a police officer approached Pedraza and asked if he had a permit; Pedraza answered no.
The police officer then asked Pedraza why he was painting the box. "I just told him I saw other boxes around that had been painted on and I was frustrated with the way they looked, like there wasn't a lot of effort put into them. So I decided to do my own box for the city, for free," Pedraza says.
The arresting officer told Pedraza to put his paint brush down and placed him in the detain position. More police arrived to document the scene, and Pedraza was taken to the station for questioning.
"It's funny–as the police were taking my fingerprints, they were telling me how much they liked my work and how cool my painting was," Pedraza said. Nine hours later, Pedraza was released from the detention cell, newly charged with defacement of property and possession of materials with intent to vandalize, and with an order to appear in court on August 29th.
The Utility Box Art Project (UBAP) was initiated by Santa Ana City Council last October to promote the arts and connect the community to more public art in the city. "This is an opportunity to beautify the city, invest in the arts, and provide another way for local artists to showcase their work in a unique way," Jay Trevino, Executive Director of Strategic Planning, said back then. Cities like Garden Grove, Los Angeles and Berkeley have already adopted similar programs.
Officials released a call for artists to send proposals for designs on utility boxes by flyer, and the call circulated through social media, email, and word of mouth. The artists chosen each received a grant award of $700 as well as up to $200 reimbursement of materials. Members of the United Artists of Santa Ana, Ryan Chase of Downtown Inc, and John Spiak of Grand Central Art Center were among those who served as members of the jury overseeing the selection process of the artists and ultimately assigning utility boxes in the downtown area to seven artists.
News of the project slipped past Pedraza and other artists, who only learned of UBAP as it was already underway. Pedraza states he was deeply curious about how to go about being a part of the project, and may have encountered some bad advice. "I went up to an artist working on one of the utility boxes and asked how I could paint my own box, and he said to just go for it, as long as I look professional doing it," he said. "Looking back, I guess I was asking the wrong person, or getting bad advice."
Since his arrest, Pedraza has received an outpouring of support from friends and fellow artists. Alicia Rojas, a local artist and one of the members of the jury selection committee for UBAP, has created a Change.org petition to drop all charges against Pedraza. The petition's info says Pedraza was charged with a felony–however that has not been determined yet by the district attorney overseeing Pedraza's case.
In the meantime, life hasn't slowed down for Pedraza as he continues to make art; in between working at Cal State Fullerton's Grand Central Art Center and volunteering at The Grain Project, he's working on more paintings and curating an art show in October. But the generous amount of support he's received has made this ordeal bearable.
"All this support has made me feel inspired. You're not an artist if you're not for the people," Pedraza says, "I'm nothing without the community."
UPDATE: Sept. 23, the DA and Superior Court judge have cleared Pedraza of any vandalism charges, but Pedraza will still be responsible for paying restitution for the costs of painting over the utility box.
Moral of the story? Don't go painting over public art without a permit. Period.