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Seyed Alavi: The Artist behind those iconic yellow utility boxes

1 min read

They’ve become such a ubiquitous part of Emeryville that I almost forget about them sometimes. Recently, while waiting at a stoplight, I observed a woman scramble for her camera-phone to capture one of them and it reminded me how unique it is to have them in our city. Even something as dull as a traffic-light utility box can be an artists’ canvas that can add a measurable amount of wonderment or thought-provocation to our daily commute or trip across town. The iconic black pedestrian figures that can be found throughout town have become synonymous with our city and its commitment to Public Art.

Seyed Alavi, an Oakland based Conceptual Artist, won a city competition commissioned by the Emeryville Public Art Committee in 2004. He worked to create the concepts with the assistance of eight Emery Secondary school students and their teacher. 17 of the 23 different pieces entitled “Signs of the Times” went up in 2005 and the remaining six in 2008. Seyed described the pieces intentions as to “raise questions about the nature of human identity, interaction and existence”. He goes on to add “I try to make art more friendly, accessible and welcoming,” The Iranian-immigrant artist earned a B.S. from San Jose State University and an M.F.A. from the San Francisco Art Institute. He has taught classes and workshops at the San Francisco Art Institute, the California College of the Arts, San Francisco State University and the University of California at Davis.

Seyed had previously collaborated with students on his “What do you think?” mural series in SF and most recently was part of a series at the Exploratorium titled “Liminality“. Seyed’s works have been featured everywhere from museums to highway overpasses and from our own Bay Area to New York City. Funding for the project came from Emeryville’s Public Art Fund, which is supported by fees from developers who opt to pay a public-art assessment in lieu of incorporating public art into their projects.

Additional Reading & Resources:

Seyed Alavi’s Public Art Portfolio →
SFGATE: Artist’s electrifying canvas in Emeryville →
Seyed Alavi profiled in KQED Arts Spark* series →

2008 Photo by Kim Komenich/SF Chronicle
A photo gallery of all 23 of them (Photo Credit: Pointnshoot on Flickr:


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Rob Arias

is a third generation Californian and East Bay native who lived in Emeryville from 2003 to 2021. Rob founded The E'ville Eye in 2011 after being robbed at gunpoint and lamenting the lack of local news coverage. Rob's "day job" is as a creative professional.

1 Comment

  1. Seyad and a few others will be needed soon to collectively tackle the Gordian knot of art here in the East Bay: the WO–Eville Maze.

    Imagine it as different-colored flowing ribbons, some of them subject to change when a cloud passes over and the luminous pigment of the paint or other application reacts. At night, phosphers in the application will irradiate back some of the light absorbed during the day so that muted colors will remain rather than varying shades of gray (50?) that we see today…

    The underbellies of the freeway can be entirely different, as each neighborhood will want to muralize their own egresses and make a statement about individuality; however, the continuous freeway itself as observed from from the sides and suspended mid air, the ribbon effect can be highlighted by those sinuously interwoven colors, some perhaps even lit with intermittent bulbs like a hyper-modernistic Xmas tree.

    All it will take is a grant from CalTrans, some pretty tall ladders and a bunch of Seyad-like artists who are willing to work with Oakland Mural Guardians (OMG!) to start assembling the first renderings.

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