Runners and cyclists use GPS maps to create art

In 1665, Johannes Vermeer poured the last drop of paint onto the canvas in his Dutch studio and completed his masterpiece, Girl with a Pearl Earring.

357 years later, one day in April, Janine Strong slowed her bike to a stop, paused her fitness app, and watched as Vermeer’s masterpiece traced the shape of her bike route through the streets of Brooklyn.

Ms Strong creates what has come to be known as ‘GPS art’ – a practice that uses the mapping capabilities of the Global Positioning System of modern phone apps such as Strava to create digital drawings of an athlete’s route across the landscape.

Instead of riding her bike on a straight road or in circles around the park, Ms. Strong plans her rides in the form of birthday cakes, stars, birds, lions and the occasional Vermeer.

The hobby grew with the widespread availability of satellite tracking for use by ordinary people, in fitness apps like Nike Run Club or MapMyRide. It is particularly popular on Strava and is often referred to as “the art of Strava”.

Strava art has been around since the launch of this app in 2009, but it has suffered from use during the pandemic. More than three billion activities have been uploaded to Strava since the start of 2020, according to Michael Joseph, the company’s senior communications manager.

To complete her digital vision of “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” Ms. Strong cycled nearly 50 miles through South Brooklyn, carefully checking Strava to ensure that every turn, lap, and straightaway reached the iconic earring and headpiece of Vermeer’s original.

“I always have a big smile on my face when it comes out and I load it up and it’s done,” he said. “It’s a very satisfying feeling.”

The idea came about after the widespread use of smartphones for fitness. In 2003, the New York Times magazine’s “Year in Ideas” recounted how Jeremy Wood and Hugh Pryor used Garmin GPS devices that looked like walkie-talkies to track the routes of butterflies and fish as they walked through the English countryside.

“It’s not just walking; You have to watch this device,” Mr. Pryor said in a recent interview. “People always wonder what you do.”

Mr Wood said he came up with the idea for GPS art when he was using a GPS tracker on a flight and the plane took off over Heathrow Airport. He was mesmerized by the picture on his Garmin.

“It made this beautiful oval shape and it was better than if I had drawn it by hand,” Mr Wood said. “That’s when I made the connection: You can use your movements to make marks in space.”

Mr. Pryor, a classmate of Mr. Wood’s, had to develop software to transfer GPS points from the Garmin to a computer and convert the data into pictures. Over the years, technology has advanced enough to create real-time visual maps using a phone or smart watch.

Steve Lloyd, Strava’s chief product and technology officer, said in an email that the increased use of GPS devices has led to more detailed maps that have improved the quality and complexity of the art.

The practice has spread from the fields of Oxfordshire, England to the sand dunes of Brazil’s Rio Grande do Norte. Gustavo Lira circumnavigated the Rio Grande in John Lennon’s face and spent nearly nine hours on the route for his daughter’s fifth birthday. It was a picture of Elsa from Disney’s Frozen.

“I’m getting tired of running the same streets on the same path,” Mr Lira said on Instagram, where he posts maps of his runs.

Jin Lu, who lives in New Jersey, started creating GPS art when he became a fan of the Game of Thrones TV series in 2013. He passed on a form of family crests from a transmission known as “sigils”. Mr Lu said linking his running to his favorite TV show gave him more reason to hit the pavement.

“It makes running a lot easier,” he said.

Lenny Mohan, who refers to himself as “the human Etch A Sketch”, has also started creating map art related to pop culture. Leonard Nimoy – Mr. Spock in the original “Star Trek” – had just passed away in 2015, and Mr. Mohan decided to pay tribute to him.

“I thought the hand would work, that it would fit the streets, especially in San Francisco, the grid pattern of the streets,” Mr. Mahan said. “So I thought, well, I’m going to salute the volcano.”

The art form even has its own Guinness World Records categories. The Guardian spotted a couple completing a 4,500-mile bike ride across Europe (while blogging about the trip), which resulted in a 600-mile-wide GPS drawing of the bike — the largest such drawing on record, The Guardian reported.

Each maker uses a slightly different process. Mr. Lu prints physical maps and outlines their planned route. Mr. Maughan uses Photoshop to lay out his map, then transfers the file to his Kindle, which he points to when it launches.

Ms. Strong said she would see if the lines on the map inspired anything. For example, on a visit to Cape Cod, he noticed that certain streets formed the shape of a shark’s tail, and he took it from there.

Artists have one big obstacle: cemeteries. Some cemeteries have rules against jogging and biking that are not always enforced. Both Mr. Lu and Ms. Strong almost had ambitious projects stymied by such rules. He found a sympathetic guard who allowed him to complete his run. He abandoned the bicycle and completed the image on foot.

For Mr. Lu, the unexpected is part of the beauty.

“The crazy thing is that you don’t know where the map will take you; You just go,” said Mr. Lu. “I always end up with what I’m looking for.”

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