Meet the GPS artists running and cycling one creative canvas at a time

Belinda Smith often begins her runs with a “round piece of anatomy”.

“It might be an eye, or maybe a butthole,” she says.

Because most of her animals are drawn as outlines, she begins and ends her run in the same spot on the map.

“So it makes sense for the start/finish to be a dot,” she adds.

Smith’s drawings often start or finish with a round piece of anatomy represented by a dot. In this case, it is the elephant’s eye.

Smith, who is an ABC journalist, is an accidental GPS artist.

Back in 2013, she was training for a half marathon by doing 20km runs. Traversing the same route each day, she became “intensely bored”.

“I was just looking at the map, thinking, ‘Where can I go?'” Smith says.

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“So I did, and ran it, and that’s sort of where it began.”

In 2013, Smith had never heard the term “GPS art”.

But in running a “cat” while connected to an app called Strava, she was unwittingly partaking in the niche hobby, sometimes also called “Strava art”.

“Strava art” refers to the app Strava, which Smith uses to visually “map” her movements as she runs, often through the northern suburbs of Melbourne.

In keeping with the name of her blog — animal pun runs — Smith plots her routes in the shape of various animals, before signing them off with a witty pun.

As she would go on to discover, however, there was a global community of “artists” doing the same thing. Most cycle their routes, but there are some like Smith who run.

Now, almost a decade later, she has completed more than 75 animals in countries all over the world.

Some stand-out examples include the Dane Swan of Copenhagen, the Manrattan of Manhattan, and the Polar Berlin.

Belinda Smith's rat drawing in Manhattan, entitled the 'Manrattan'.
Smith has completed GPS artworks around the world, including this one, titled Manrattan, in Manhattan in the US. ,Supplied: Belinda Smith,

Basically, Smith says, she took up running because of its mental health benefits.

But embarking on animal runs has meant engaging a more creative side of the brain while exercising.

“I’m not an artist,” Smith says.

Smith also derives joy from the process of piecing together an animal.

“It’s that feeling of satisfaction when you round the corner and you’re like, ooh, that’s a hoof or something [else], You can kind of see it forming in your mind when you do it,” she says.

An outline of a brontosaurus, 'drawn' by running a route around the northern suburbs of Melbourne in Strava
Smith’s run around the northern suburbs of Melbourne created this image, titled Brontosaurun. ,Supplied: Belinda Smith,

“And then when you’re finished, it’s like, ‘It’s a horse! I just ran a horse!'”.

Beyond the challenge of composing a picture to run, Smith also has some specific rules that make her job even harder.

First, she leaves her GPS on for the whole run, meaning she cannot deviate from the path she has planned — even for a drink of water.

“I don’t like running with stuff [like a water bottle]unless I have to, so it can be a bit tricky,” she says.

Belinda Smith's outline of a rabbit, entitled 'hop to it'
This image is called Hop to It. ,Supplied: Belinda Smith,

“I often look for churches, because they tend to have taps outside. Or sometimes there’ll be a hose outside an apartment block, so I’ll sneak in.”

She also uses the National Public Toilet Map to find public toilets on her route.

And in some instances, she must navigate dead ends or obstacles in her path.

Belinda Smith takes a selfie of herself dressed in running gear and a beanie in a Glasgow apartment
Smith rarely carries anything with her as she runs, instead stopping for water breaks along her route. ,Supplied: Belinda Smith,

When at home in Australia, Smith also tends to stick to his own neighbourhood, rather than traveling to another part of the city.

“There’s something to be said about having constraints,” she says.

“It forces you to be a bit more creative when you’ve only got a canvas so big.

“Otherwise, you can feel a bit overwhelmed by all the potential places to go.

“Plus, in the northern suburbs, most of the streets are parallel or perpendicular, so it’s quite easy to make those recognizable shapes.”

‘I’ve seen more places in Melbourne than a few locals’

Pravin Xeona poses in front of some native trees with his bicycle, wearing a pink lycra vest, black pants and shoes
Pravin Xeona creates GPS art by cycling, rather than running. ,Supplied: Pravin Xeona,

Pravin Xeona, 29, is another Melbourne-based GPS artist.

Originally from Kerala, in India, he came to Australia several years ago to study a masters degree in IT. Now he works as a front-end developer and lives in the CBD.

Like most GPS artists, Mr Xeona is a cyclist. He stumbled across the concept on a YouTube channel.

“I was like, ‘I could do this, it’s something that’s going to keep me healthy, but at the same time it’s creative,'” he says.

The first thing he “drew” was a Batman logo. While his “masterpiece”, he says, is a kangaroo.

Pravin Xeona's drawing of a kangaroo in Brunswick, Melbourne
Mr Xeona’s kangaroo, which he calls his masterpiece, was shared by the ABC Melbourne social media account. ,Supplied: Pravin Xeona,

“Everyone liked and appreciated that one,” he says, noting the image was shared by the ABC Melbourne team on social media.

Somewhat controversially, Mr Xeona uses a different method to Smith to compose his works of art. While Smith never turns her GPS off, Mr Xeona uses a “stop, start” method to complete his images.

Pravin Xeona's GPS artwork of Mario, colored in using Paint
Mr Xeona used a computer to color in this Mario artwork.,Supplied: Pravin Xeona,

“If you need a straight line, it’s not like you can always find a route that’s going to look exactly like the image,” he explains.

“So if there’s no road or path through to get where I want, I stop the GPS at one point, and then start the ride at another point. The app then makes it a straight line.”

Mr Xeona laughs when asked if others think this is “cheating”.

“Some people do say that,” he says.

“And there is some point to it. Initially I was using it excessively because I wanted to get a perfect picture, but I’ve seen other people doing some really good pictures without doing that at all, so I was like, maybe I should reduce how much I use it.”

In comparison to Smith, Mr Xeona likes to use as much of Melbourne as he can for his “canvas”. He has even generated a heat map which shows all the places he has cycled across town.

A picture of all the routes Pravin Xeona has cycled in Melbourne - which shows journeys in all directions
This map shows the various routes Mr Xeona has cycled around Melbourne. ,Supplied: Pravin Xeona,

“That’s the reason I like cycling a lot. I don’t know whether I’m bluffing, but I think I’ve seen more places in Melbourne than a few locals.”

And while he was stuck within a five-kilometre radius during Melbourne’s lengthy lockdown, he says GPS art “kept him sane”.

He even created an artwork, called Get Jabbed, to encourage the uptake of vaccinations.

Pravin Xeona's Get Jabbed GPS artwork in the Melbourne CBD
Mr Xeona created his Get Jabbed artwork during Melbourne’s lockdown. ,Supplied: Pravin Xeona,

“I couldn’t meet any of my friends or go out during that time so I spent a considerable amount of time planning [routes] or just looking at other people’s artwork for inspiration,” he says.

He also reached out to other GPS artists across the world, including Christian Ohantel, who is based in Munich, Germany.

The pair decided to collaborate on a project, with Ohantel drawing a dingo for Mr Xeona, and Mr Xeona drawing an eagle for Ohantel.

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“I have done quite a few collaborations like that,” says Mr Xeona.

So passionate is Mr Xeona about the hobby, that he has taken to posting his images on Reddit to encourage others to take it up.

“Whenever I post an image to Reddit, people ask, ‘How did you do that?’ ‘What kind of app did you use?’ So I always try to give a detailed explanation.

“That’s one thing I love about it: It connects you with a lot of people.”

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