Cleaning by Creating: the Legal Graffiti Artists of Lausanne

April 19, 2023

With spring in the air and flowers starting to bloom, another thing you might start noticing around Lausanne is that some of our electrical boxes are also getting a clean-up and a fresher new look for the season. Who’s behind these painted boxes and why do they each look so different? We set out to find out who is behind this unconventional open-air gallery that we all get to enjoy on the streets of Lausanne.

But first a bit of history. Energy infrastructure is forever growing and electric boxes are becoming more needed than ever. They are necessary in every community to provide electricity from the grid to homes and businesses. But these large metal cabinets are usually painted as inconspicuous a color as possible, usually gray, intentionally to blend in and not be noticed by those passing by. This dull blank canvas often (and not surprisingly) becomes the target of local “taggers” who want to sign their name and mark their territory. The recurrent cost of having to constantly cover up the illegal tags and graffiti required a solution. Et voila, the idea of the legal “cleaners” or taggers of these boxes was born.

boite tunnel

But this idea is not something specific to Lausanne, quite the contrary– it’s a movement that has taken over all corners of the world from Brisbane to Kolkata. Some are done by volunteers, others by students and universities, and some by the local city endorsing the project and recruiting local artists or new and emerging ones. Some use these boxes as a creative expression, others like the ones in Kolkata to tell the history of the city.

The story in Lausanne started back in 2009 when 20-plus independent graffiti artists got the OK from the city to paint some of the Electrical Boxes of the Services industriels de Lausanne (SIL). They were considered the legal cleaners of these boxes. Cleaning them of all the miscellaneous tags, graffiti, and stickers that have tarnished them over the years. An approach to graffiti management that aims to exhibit local art and students’ work and support urban art, as opposed to simply constantly removing vandalism.

boite electrique

That’s when Pascal Jacquet (@jaqimages ), a local artist and illustrator and one of those street artists, with the pseudonym Sapin, stepped in and requested permission for his students over at the “Centre d’Orientation et de Formation Professionnelles (COFOP)” also to be allowed to decorate these boxes. After around a year of figuring out the budget for materials and so forth, Sapin and his students were given 10 boxes to start with and began with the specific theme of ‘electricity’.

Nearly fifteen years and 350 boxes later, the theme is no longer just electricity. The ever-changing group of 48 students, with the support and motivation of their teacher, start planning their designs in the fall to be ready come spring to transfer their designs once the weather accommodates and the temperature is just right for the paint. It has to be between 13/14 degrees and each box takes a few hours to complete. Want to see a snapshot of these boxes? Head over to their Instagram account @boiteselectriques.

electrical box

We sat down with Sapin and he shared that even though he and his students are legally cleaning these boxes by transforming them into works of art, they have on occasion been stopped by the police due to calls from the neighbors who have no information about these projects. This proves that they still carry a mysterious air about them – the incognito graffiti artists who are actually on assignment from the city.

Every box is different, just like every artist has a different style. Some boxes are done by the students (signed COFOP), and other boxes are done by independent artists selected by the city. How can you tell them apart? Every artist has his/her signature. For example, can you guess what Sapin’s signature is? You guessed it, it’s a Sapin.

With nearly 350+ boxes around Lausanne, how can one see all of these boxes? For a free virtual tour of these boxes, you can find photos of them archived on the Ville de Lausanne website, categorized by date and location. Sapin shared with TLG that there will soon be a book published that will include little guided walks to see a selection of the boxes. How exciting will that be?

spray cans

On another note, the weather isn’t always kind on these painted boxes. Taggers and graffiti artists also sometimes still try to mark their territory on these art projects, which means that some of these boxes get a redo. Sometimes it happens directly after being painted, if they don’t get approval from the city, or a few years down the line if the box cover changes or the whole box gets removed or changed completely. PS: there is one special box that changes with every season and here is your hint to find it: it’s green and on Avenue de la Gare. Let us know if you find it!

With spring in the air and rising temperatures encouraging us to explore Lausanne on foot, be sure to keep a lookout for any newly painted boxes. And if you happen to see an electrical box in your neighborhood that needs some cleaning, be sure to contact Sapin (they also take requests)!