Illustration of love locks on a bridge against a sunset

From Love Locks to Chewing Gum: How Spontaneous Art Is Taking Its Toll on Cities

The desire to leave a piece of yourself behind could do more damage than good

We’re dedicating our November features to arts and culture. With cultural institutions around the world in full swing, we’ve never been more excited to explore the world’s beautiful librariesnewest museums, and exciting exhibitions. Read on for inspiring stories on the artist collaborations that are redefining travel gear, the complicated relationship between cities and spontaneous art, how the world’s most historic sites maintain their beauty, and an interview with mixed media artist Guy Stanley Philoche.

Leave No Trace has been catching on in the great outdoors as a reminder of the outsize impact unwitting nature enthusiasts can have on delicate ecosystems. But the millennia-old compulsion people have to leave their mark on a landscape, particularly when in the throes of infatuation, can take a toll on cities just as much as any stacked rock can in the woods.

You've undoubtedly witnessed it yourself. It's a tale as old as time: boy meets girl, and the young lovers carve their initials in a heart on a tree as a public, permanent declaration of ardor. Leaving arborglyphs is a practice recorded as far back as the third century BCE by the Greek poet Callimachus and in the poems of Virgil and the plays of William Shakespeare. 

In modern times, similar memes have taken over the world's great cities, from graffiti asserting that a visitor was there to padlocks clamped to bridges by committed lovers to coins chucked into wells and fountains from the Mall of America to Rome. But these antics can take their toll on even the strongest jungles of concrete and stone, causing as much damage as some quick whittling on unsuspecting aspen. As over-tourism reached its pre-pandemic peak over the past decade, an increasing number of cities have been cracking down on the seemingly innocuous forms of creative expression that tempt even tourists who want to leave a piece of themselves behind instead of simply taking a souvenir home.

Leaving arborglyphs has been recorded as far back as the third century BCE by the Greek poet Callmicacus, as well as in the poems of Virgil and in the plays of Shakespeare.

In 2015, the city of Paris removed a stunning one million padlocks from its Pont des Arts bridge—a 45-ton load the Napoleonic-era monument was never engineered to uphold. A few years later, however, even more new locks had appeared—that’s the power of love and social media. And so the tug-of-war continues between romantic hopefuls trying to lock down their union’s longevity and maintenance workers tasked with keeping Paris’ first metal bridge intact.

Paris isn’t the only city frustrated by locals and visitors leaving their mark. In 2017, residents of one Moscow district were asked to vote on whether a graffiti wall dedicated to beloved Soviet rock star Viktor Tsoi should be moved out of restoration concerns and in part to reduce foot traffic to the colorful Arbot neighborhood alley. In 2019, Prague cracked down street artists kicking up plumes of spraypaint at the famous John Lennon Wall, where anti-war and pro-peace messages have been left since the Czech Republic’s 1980s Velvet Revolution. 

Ostensibly the goal at both walls was to preserve some critical pieces of graffiti left by known artists and to cut down on crowds who “disturbed the public order.” But that same year, Chinese government officials erased similar Lennon Walls that had popped up across Hong Kong as part of the Umbrella Movement—in that instance, it seems authorities were more concerned about preserving political power than the city’s architectural landmarks. 

Elsewhere, cities have learned to embrace the collective creativity that’s birthed unusual attractions—or at least grant a measure of tolerance. In 2015, Seattle announced its famous gum wall was due for chiseling and steam cleaning, for fear the thick layers of spit and Double Bubble were eroding the brickwork beneath. On the opposite end of the left coast, San Luis Obispo gave up on similar scrubbing its full-on gum alley in the mid-1990s after much debate over whether the sticky scene was a gross nuisance ended in tacit support for the quirky attraction. 

In 2015, the city of Paris removed a stunning one million padlocks from its Pont des Arts bridge—a 45-ton load the Napoleonic-era monument was never engineered to uphold. 

Meanwhile, the centuries-old tradition of tossing coins into wishing wells or fountains for good luck has certainly paid off for European charities. Rome's Trevi Fountain collects about $1.7 million a year from passersby flicking in their Euros over their left shoulders in hopes of one day returning to the city. Even world leaders at the 2021 G20 Summit took part in the tradition, tossing unique coins minted just for the photo op into the Palazzo Poli's most notable feature. All that cash goes to the Catholic organization Caritas Rome to help the city's needy achieve la dolce vita.

But some local rituals cost far more than a euro. In 2016, Rome spent almost as much as it pulled out of Trevi Fountain to restore the Spanish Steps made famous in the Hollywood classic "Roman Holiday," starring Audrey Hepburn. Crowds of visitors sitting, spilling, and scuffing the gorgeous stairwell left it stained with everything from red wine from nearby cafes to chewing gum globs better saved for Seattle. 

The impulse to make a mark has cost tourists themselves. More and more cities are levying hefty fines for clamping love locks on the wrong span ($100 if caught at the Brooklyn Bridge) or carving your wife's name into the Colosseum—as one Ecuadoran tourist did in 2017 to the tune of a $20,000 fine. And while lovelorn rituals like carving hearts into any available surface predate even Rome's most famous amphitheater, it's no coincidence that the cities pushing back the hardest are some of the most overtouristed, where one stripe of spray paint or sidewalk chalk art can quickly be followed by thousands.

Social media hasn't just driven the popularity of destinations from Morocco to Iceland to Macchu Picchu in recent years. It's also increased awareness of photogenic destinations off-the-beaten-path, like Seattle's gum wall, Atlanta's Krog Street Tunnel, or Park City, Colorado's own Banksy mural. Not only that, platforms like Instagram have made it extra-irresistible to get in on seemingly harmless collective fun like pitching the key to your sweetheart's padlock into the Seine or coping a feel on artist Jeanne Rynhart's buxom Molly Malone sculpture in Dublin. 

So what's a traveler to do when they want to weave themselves or their beloved into a storied city's urban fabric? Some cities have been installing alternative places to attach love locks or have begun using locks already removed to create selfie-ready backdrops akin to Nashville's famous Wing Wall mural. Others, like Prague, have kept certain parts of their Lennon Walls or graffiti tunnels available to would-be artists while preserving historical or significant bits from being covered over. 

If you simply must leave behind a little token of your time abroad, stick to designated repositories like the special panels Edinburgh installed for love lock claspers as part of a charitable fundraiser. There are the metal tree sculptures, too, which Moscow offers as an alternative to its historical bridges. Other practices, like yarn bombing, are less likely to contribute to corrosion and structural overload than locks or paint or gum. Or you can try alternatives to leaving any detritus, like snapping a photo with your honey in a favorite spot where you can recreate the shot together on your next visit. 

The best advice for urban explorers is that embraced by conservation-minded outdoor enthusiasts: "take only pictures, leave only footprints." Sure, light-touch tourism hasn't been vaunted in songs like Frank Sinatra's "Three Coins" or Brit popster Bibio's "Lovers' Names Carved Into Walls." But whether you're in a chapel of redwoods or the great cathedrals of Europe, adhering to Leave No Trace principles can help preserve beloved destinations for future generations while respecting the locals whose city you're passing through.