HAYWARD -- Blank walls that used to be an open invitation to taggers now support the creativity of muralists and their view of the city, its history and residents.
Motorists driving south on Foothill Boulevard enter downtown and are welcomed by a bucolic view of the Hayward shoreline before the area was settled. Murals depict a 1930s vintage Hayward postcard and a salute to the shoreline community once known as Russell City and its blues music. Other walls portray a view of downtown through a magnifying glass, an homage to the city's Latin heritage and vignettes of notable buildings and locales.
The city's murals are featured in an exhibit, "Mural Hayward," which runs through Feb. 23 at the Foothill Arts of the Bay Gallery. The display includes photos, tools, sketches and information about the work of seven muralists: Jean Bidwell, Suzanne Gayle, Ben Goulart, Andrew Kong Knight, Linda Longinotti, Christine Pacheco and Josh Powell.
The anti-graffiti mural project was begun in 2008 by Greg Jones, then Hayward city manager.
"When I got here and realized what a large art community we had, plus the graffiti problem, it seemed a logical fit," said Jones, now a city councilman. "We were spending thousands of dollars painting over graffiti; why not spend some of that money on artwork?"
He said he was inspired by art-based anti-graffiti programs in Concord and Chico, where he had previously worked. And he also knew about the success of a project in Emeryville that covered utility boxes with artwork to fight tagging.
While the Hayward project's planning began in early 2008, it really took off with the hiring of neighborhood partnership manager Stacey Bristow, whose duties include graffiti abatement, Jones said. The two decided to focus first on utility boxes, a popular graffiti target.
"The city manager said let's try a dozen utility boxes downtown and see if it works as a deterrent and what the community thinks," Bristow said. "It turned out to be successful; it was a great deterrent, and the community responded positively."
Funded mostly with redevelopment money, the project was expanded to include more utility boxes and then, working with business owners, blank walls around town.
"We use local artists only, ones that had some significant tie to Hayward. That was a council directive," Bristow said. "We didn't want someone from L.A. coming and painting murals in Hayward when we had all this local talent."
The mural project now covers 12 walls throughout downtown, a sound wall near the BART tracks close to City Hall, a retaining wall on Jackson Street and book drop boxes at the main library. Almost 50 utility boxes are also covered in artwork, Bristow said. And more are planned as financing becomes available, which has been a challenge since redevelopment agencies were dissolved, Bristow said.
The latest project, at Hayward's animal shelter on Barnes Court, is being painted by Powell and Wythe Bowart. The animal-themed mural should be finished in March, said Powell, who has painted four others for the city.
Taggers for the most part have left his murals alone, Powell said. The exception is the mural at the Harder Road underpass -- depicting a geometric design inspired by Ohlone Indian decorative patterns -- which occasionally is hit, he said. "That was the most difficult one I've done to begin with. It had a lot of graffiti," he said. "It's a 100 percent improvement over what it was, but there's still a little bit of a problem."
Despite that, Powell said the murals are a deterrent.
"Most graffiti is usually just little kids tagging," he said. "Once they see artwork on top of the graffiti, they respect the art and take their graffiti somewhere else. Or they get inspired to learn to create real art."
Powell said he's seen some anti-graffiti art projects in other East Bay cities, but not any as large. "The scale of this project in Hayward is amazing," he said.
Hayward's mural program was given an award by the League of California Cities in 2011. The Helen Putnam Award for Excellence recognized the city's program for its "beautiful works of art, reduction in graffiti and noticeable cost savings."
Most of the murals, especially the early ones, are visible to motorists driving through the city.
"We wanted something people would remember and associate with Hayward, something they would see as they drove through town," Jones said. "We wanted to give people a reason to stop here. And I think it looks better driving through Hayward than it did five years ago."
Contact Rebecca Parr at 510-293-2473 or follow her at Twitter.com/rdparr1.
Exhibit featuring work of seven muralists
Where: Foothill Arts of the Bay Gallery, 22394 Foothill Blvd., Hayward
When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays
Through: Feb. 23