GPS artists in Singapore are getting creative with their running and cycling routes to create quirky images full of local references. Collage: VICE / Images: Courtesy of Emjae Argallon
With the norms of social distancing driving more people to pursue solitary hobbies, another kind of distancing is making waves—and eye-catching artwork—in Singapore’s outdoor sports scene.
GPS art is an unconventional method of drawing, where people create lines by traveling on a route and documenting it on their GPS device. The end result is a neat, dramatically sized-down drawing displayed over a map. Over the years, the quirky activity has attracted a niche but fervent fanbase among cyclists and runners around the world. This artistic dimension to sports has given rise to a community of “GPS artists,” who center their cycling and running routes around making cool doodles. Many of them use Strava, an activity tracking platform where users can plan and share their routes with one another. In Singapore, GPS artists work around—or with—the relatively limited space and routes, sketching out hyper-local references with their feet.Crystin Sim, a cycling enthusiast who picked up the hobby last August, told VICE that besides cycling to keep fit and destress, the sport has connected her to new people with similar interests, and allowed her to exercise her creativity with route art.
When planning her next cycling route art, she looks at the map on Strava and traces a design on her phone screen. She then follows the planned cycling route on her hybrid bike that’s suitable for pavements and roads.Her designs are incorporated with the hottest news in Singapore, drawing inspiration from local events that are making waves among residents of the city-state. Most of her GPS art is animal-themed.
A panda drawing that she traced with her bike in August is an adorable tribute to the latest sensation at the Singapore Zoo: the first giant panda cub to be born in the country after years of attempted breeding.Meanwhile, her minimalist bird outline is a reference to a particular mandarin duck that made the news and became somewhat of a local celebrity, when it was spotted waddling around local neighborhoods. Given its striking look and the fact that it’s not native to Singapore, its uninvited appearance in the local districts saw many flocking to the area for a rare glimpse.Then there’s the notorious wild boar that rose to infamy after a series of aggressive attacks on passersby. It was captured by the authorities in an adrenaline-filled chase and immortalized in Sim’s wild boar-shaped route.Following the same porcine motif, another cyclist traced out an adorably chonky swine on her bike, garnering over 2,000 likes on Facebook from both impressed cyclists and those who simply appreciate a cute pig pic.Another animal—mythical creature, to be exact—that’s wildly popular among local GPS artists is the Merlion, a lion-fish hybrid and Singapore’s official national mascot. Every year, when National Day rolls around, GPS artists around Singapore celebrate with customized routes that are thematically on-point.
This year, one guy decided to sketch out the Merlion’s entire body on the eve of Singapore’s National Day.The ambitious Merlion-shaped bike ride spanned about 95 kilometers and took Emjae Argallon more than seven hours to complete, the 32-year-old amateur cyclist told VICE.He first got into cycling last June and has been cruising roads and parks with his mountain bike ever since. He is now on a personal mission to ride in all the parks in Singapore through an island-wide network of connective paths.Argallon is serious about his hobby, often creating tutorials and uploading them to his YouTube channel, to help others navigate local cycling routes. He said that he would plan his route ahead and do a test run to make sure he covers all his bases, before officially recording the route for his videos.While cycling allows people to cover more distance in a shorter time—a big advantage for tracing more intricate and tedious routes—runners have also created some of the most memorable GPS artwork in the country.Last year, avid runner Cheng Hock Toh (who’s also a prolific GPS artist) captured hearts with a unique sketch of Cupid holding his bow.The same artist also traced out wandering elephants with his feet.More recently, he ran a route in the shape of five connected ribbons, as part of the ongoing Yellow Ribbon Virtual Run fundraiser that supports and raises awareness about the reintegration of ex-offenders into society. Participants of the event have to complete running routes in the shape of ribbons.
While the intricate distance doodles created by experienced GPS artists are impressive and understandably intimidating for newbies, all you really need to get into the craft is a good enough stamina and some wheels (or your two feet).Wherever you are in the world, there is probably already an existing community of helpful GPS artists who are sharing their routes online.On the canvas that is your city, your legs are your paintbrushes, and GPS trackers your ink.Follow Koh Ewe on Instagram.