If you have visited downtown Ocean City over the past twenty years you may have driven by, walked by, or biked by a series of painted utility boxes. These boxes, which are owned by the local utility company, Delmarva Power, were all originally painted in a greyish green color. They are often found near street corners and were installed, over twenty years ago, as a direct result of the undergrounding of overhead utility lines. While many were just drab looking metal boxes, due to the nature of the blank slate, located on highly visible locations, others become the target of graffiti and the placement of commercial stickers. That drastically changed in 2004 with the start of the Ocean City Development Corporation’s (OCDC) new public art program that viewed these utility boxes as a new medium for its street art.
Objective of the Program
The purpose was to turn a potential problem into an opportunity to display public art for visitors and residents of Ocean City. As the first few utility boxes were painted by volunteers and novice artists of the Art League of Ocean City (ALOC), then the interest in the program expanded considerably. There are now over thirty-five painted boxes by various artists and volunteers throughout the downtown area. In 2021, the Art League expanded the program to other sections of Ocean City, as well. The ALOC completed five painted boxes in a two-year period. In 2005, OCDC also worked with the four Worcester County high schools (Stephen Decatur, Snow Hill, Pocomoke, and Worcester Preparatory) to complete one box each; again, in the downtown
area. These boxes were all completed in a single day by a number of students working with the guidance of their art teachers.
In the earlier years of this program, OCDC worked with sponsors of these painted boxes, inside and outside of its designated, downtown area. As time moved on, the Art League started to partner with local artists and managed such public art projects in the midtown and upper sections of Ocean City. More recently, OCDC revised the program to only coordinate projects south of 17th Street and those boxes adjacent to the OC Boardwalk. This website links to a map for a tour of many of the downtown boxes:
Note: Several of the boxes have been repainted, since this brochure was completed.
One of the most important elements of this 2004 program was the buy-in of Delmarva Power, who owned these metal utility boxes scattered throughout the downtown area. Second of importance, to ensure that this new program was a success, was the participation of the Art League of Ocean City. Once these approvals were secured, everything else fell into place. The OCDC’s role was to prepare each utility box to be painted with two coats of background “sky blue” paint color. In addition, all important Delmarva Power stickers, such as box identification numbers and safety warning decals, had to be kept exposed and were protected from being painted over. To complete the first ten boxes, OCDC worked closely with Art League coordinator, Jody Veader. Jody was the artist on several of these first boxes, working tirelessly by pulling her little red wagon filled with paints and art supplies around the downtown. The OCDC’s Public Art Committee would approve of each proposed art sketch before the painting would commence. Generally, all proposals were to have an Ocean City or Eastern Shore theme as the artwork.
In the meantime, OCDC would find a sponsor for each proposed box to be painted. This was usually a local business or individual. Some sponsorships were done in memory of a family member. These sponsorships were for an affordable contribution of $500 to $600 with the funds being provided to the artist. Several of the artists would even donate their services and time to paint a utility box. A small plaque was added to each completed box to recognize the sponsor. Often, OCDC and local paint stores, such as PPG Paints on 8th Street and the two Sherwin Williams stores in the OC area, would donate some paint and art supplies. Given these contributions and sponsorships, this small but effective program was almost self-sustaining. Other minor gap funding was provided by the OCDC Public Art Committee through its fundraising efforts.
In addition, to preparing all utility boxes, the OCDC was responsible for cleaning and clear coating each painted box at least once per year; often by perennial OC local volunteer, Tom Allen. The clear coating material was a special mix that also protected the artwork from ultraviolet rays and increased the longevity of the artwork on each box. Most of the utility boxes, found throughout the downtown area, have been repainted at least one time and some have been repainted twice with new artwork and new artists for a fresh look. As a result of this program, graffiti has been kept to a minimum and when it does appear it has been fairly easy to remove by OCDC, since much of it was located on the outer edges of the primary artwork.
Comments from Participating Artist and Partners
Jessica Schlegel, artist – “The utility box project helps beautify the city and promotes different styles of art. For me personally, visitors of the area reach out to me all the time after seeing my work to let me know how much joy it brings them during their journeys downtown. The utility box project helps me reach people who may not have otherwise seen it.”
Aubrey Sizemore, Volunteer & Events Director of ALOC – “Working with OCDC to beautify utility boxes in Downtown Ocean City is a joy! The artists love to have the opportunity to permanently display their work in our community. Businesses love to sponsor the boxes to promote their business and I love walking downtown and seeing the art around every corner. It makes our town unique and tourists are always stopping to admire the art. I also help condo HOAs, hotels and property owners throughout all of Ocean City to beautify their utility boxes with the Art League of OC. It’s so fun to get a call and someone is enthusiastic about having a piece of their property turn into a permanent fixture of art. They are always looking for a beach themed work of art that they can enjoy as well as people walking down the street to access the beach. Having these works of art throughout our town is a small surprise when you turn a corner that makes you smile and enjoy art unexpectedly.”
Bill Cioccio, artist – “In the summer of 2020 during the pandemic I was putting the finishing touches on the 26th street Utility box. An unknown woman walked up to me and said, “The box just says HAPPINESS! and we need that right now.” I think that was the best compliment I’ve ever gotten for one of my paintings. She took several pictures of the box before she left. A few days later I saw some children pointing at all the fish I painted on the box. They were smiling and laughing and then their parents took pictures of them standing by the box. It was then that I realized how much these painted utility boxes were appreciated. What was once a rusty ugly green box was now a photo spot. When people stop to take pictures of utility boxes you know you’ve done something special. The 26th Street box also became a Poke Man stop in the online game…. I’ve painted 4 utility boxes to date. I’m told by local business people that the ones near the inlet are photographed daily by the tourists. It’s really cool to know that thousands of people look and enjoy my creations. Ugly but necessary green utility boxes have now made the downtown area more beautiful. It’s made the uptown residents jealous and I’ve been approached by many to paint the boxes in the north end of town. Several have been painted. The utility box program has also opened many doors to me as an artist. I’ve received many commissioned paintings and a few small murals as a result of the popularity of the utility boxes. Quite a welcomed bonus. Family and distant acquaintances take a tour of the boxes when they visit O.C. I’m certain these things occur for the other artists as well. It’s great to know that you’ve been a part of something that makes the town a bit brighter and is appreciated by many.”
Ali Jacobs, artist of T.C. Studios Arts and Entertainment – “As a professional mural painter, being a part of the program is important to me, because of my passion for beautification and revitalization of the city. Over the years, I have heard countless positive comments from locals and visitors, expressing how much they enjoy seeing all of the artwork on the boxes. Two of the most recent boxes I’ve painted, on N. Division and 17th streets, sponsored by T.C. Studios, include vibrant colors with a modern and graphic style. I absolutely love seeing people walk by and stop to take a photo with them. The boxes can add so much joy to someone’s Ocean City experience. Since 2016 I have been a part of painting 6 boxes, including one of my favorites, sponsored by Trimper’s Rides, which features their historic carousel rotating around the box.
Over the years, I’ve also had the opportunity to lead two non-profit groups through painting boxes as well – the Young Professionals with the Chamber of Commerce as well as the Lioness Club. I came up with designs for each, then sketched the designs on the boxes and provided painting supplies for the volunteers (materials sponsored by T.C. Studios). It was such a joy to lead the groups through painting their boxes, and offered the organizations a sense of pride to have a deeper, creative connection to their city. The program adds so much culture and energy (no pun intended!) to the city and is so important!”
Status of the Program
Currently, there are no sponsorship or artist opportunities available at this time, until that is, Delmarva Power establishes a new policy for any additional boxes to be painted. Such a policy is under evaluation.
This public art program celebrates its twentieth anniversary and there is a lot to be proud of. Numerous new artists were able to showcase their talents, volunteers and local students were able to bring a community spirit to the effort, new partnerships were formed, sponsor donations have enhanced the appearance of Ocean City, and the public (OC visitors and residents alike) are appreciative of this work. Surely it is a win-win for so many reasons!!