Moving

To make ‘GPS artwork,’ these athletes use San Francisco’s avenue structure as their canvas

Jakub “Kuba” Mosur has biked across San Francisco so many times that its steep, unforgiving hills don’t bother him. As he pedals up the slopes, his mind is on something else entirely — his art.

Mosur, 46, is part of a community of local athletes who use location-tracking software that records their every move as they bike or run the city’s streets to create images such as animals, people, symbols and words. They travel well-plotted-out routes, and the resulting images appear on the software’s maps, which they then share on social media to display their “art.”

In essence, San Francisco’s landscape is a canvas and the art is a large-scale contour drawing based on the athlete’s movements. For San Francisco’s GPS artists, biking or running up and down hills is simply part of the creative process.

“It’s healthy, obviously, and it’s fun,” said Lenny Maughan, 61, a distance runner whose thousands of Instagram followers know him as the “Human Etch A Sketch.”

“Distance and length are totally irrelevant,” he said. “I make a design and do whatever it takes.”

A sample of the “GPS art” that San Francisco resident Jakub “Kuba” Mosur has created. He is part of a community of local athletes who make “GPS art” by using software to record their movements as they cycle or run pre-planned routes.

Provided by Jakub “Kuba” Mosur

The hobby — some call it “GPS art,” others “running art” or simply “run-art” — lends itself to creativity and adaptability. Because it’s a relatively new medium, the community is largely decentralized, with little structure, no expectations and lots of room for low-stakes experimentation.

Local GPS artists have digitally plastered San Francisco with words, quirky symbols and other squiggly designs representing everything from people and animals to images and phrases that call attention to current events.

“It’s organic and everyone kind of does their own thing,” Maughan said. “This isn’t something that someone can make a paint-by-numbers kit and tell you what to do. If so, what’s the point?”

What the artists have in common is their obsession with accuracy. With location-tracking apps such as Strava, MapMyRun and Relive responsible for “drawing” the line that the artists carefully plan, precision is everything. One wrong turn or misplaced starting or ending point and the whole drawing can be ruined.

A sample of the

A sample of the “GPS art” that San Francisco resident Jakub “Kuba” Mosur has created. He is part of a community of local athletes who make “GPS art” by using software to record their movements as they cycle or run pre-planned routes.

Provided by Jakub “Kuba” Mosur

“You don’t have to be fast to make the run-art; you just have to not make the wrong turn,” said Frank Chan, 49, a Russian Hill resident who started making run-art around the start of the pandemic.

Before lacing up his running shoes, Chan uses Photoshop or similar software to sketch the design he has in mind over a digital map of San Francisco. It can be a painstaking process, sometimes requiring multiple revisions to smooth out bumpy lines, reduce or increase the length of the route or adjust the route to avoid buildings and other structures.

“If you’re doing it right, it usually takes longer to sketch out and plan than to run the damn thing,” Chan said with a laugh.

Once his design is ready, he prints out the map, straps on two Garmin watches in case one of them fails to track his movement, and heads out. Most of the time, he doesn’t need directions; having run every street in San Francisco helps him know where to turn, he said. Maughan, who is close to accomplishing that feat, uploads his design to a Kindle and reads the image like a paper map. Mosur, his hands on the handlebars, has a small Wahoo GPS clipped to his custom bike.

A sample of the

A sample of the “GPS art” that San Francisco resident Jakub “Kuba” Mosur has created. He is part of a community of local athletes who make “GPS art” by using software to record their movements as they cycle or run pre-planned routes.

Provided by Jakub “Kuba” Mosur

The planned routes can be dozens of miles long — the longer the route, the clearer and smoother the image. It can take several days to finish running or biking the longest ones. But in some ways, those lengthy runs or bike rides are what the hobby is all about, the artists said. Some crave a runner’s high — “you have to earn it,” Maughan said. Some enjoy the feeling of connection they get with the city or use the art form as a way to spice up their workouts.

As they zip through neighborhoods, past waterfronts and over hills, the artists get a varied sampling of the best — and worst — of San Francisco. On a single run or bike ride, they might pass elegant multimillion-dollar Victorians one minute and people struggling with homelessness and drug addiction the next.

“It can be a way to sort of force certain interactions with the world,” Chan said. That was especially important, he noted, when the pandemic began.

For Mosur, the GPS art can feel ethereal, he said, like an image drawn in the sand before waves wash it away. A history buff — his bike is named Le Vizir after Napoleon’s trusty steed — Mosur said his work ironically reminds him of some of humanity’s earliest art forms, such as cave paintings and geoglyphs like the Nazca Lines in Peru. When he rides his bike, occasionally in a Napoleon costume for fun, he feels like he is telling a story, he said.

A sample of the

A sample of the “GPS art” that San Francisco resident Jakub “Kuba” Mosur has created. He is part of a community of local athletes who make “GPS art” by using software to record their movements as they cycle or run pre-planned routes.

Provided by Jakub “Kuba” Mosur

“I kind of want to create this historical narrative across chronological time, but also I’m doing it to kind of inspire others that may be into art or may be into cycling to think of their exercise in a different way,” Mosur said. “It doesn’t have to be just me moving my legs on a bike pedal, but rather it could be just a different expression and a way of communicating with the rest of the world.”

The artists share their work on Instagram, Strava and other online platforms, and have developed a community of like-minded athletes interested in GPS art as a creative outlet. Some of them do group rides or runs and have collaborated on some larger projects. Chan and Maughan worked together to recreate Michelangelo’s famous “The Creation of Adam,” with Chan running the line that would become Adam’s hand and Maughan creating God’s, the two fingertips meeting in the Haight-Ashbury.

“Art is suddenly — to my delight, and not to my expectations — part of my life again,” said Maughan, who as a kid would doodle caricatures of his friends, inspired by the art in Mad Magazine.

Maughan is retired now but plans to keep on running until he can’t anymore, he said. While his running art is nothing more than a personal challenge, he said, it does make him happy to know that he may be inspiring others to think artistically.

Perhaps others can find a high in making running art, too.

“You have a canvas,” Chan said. “You should do something with it.”

Andy Picon (he/him) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: andy.picon@hearst.com Twitter: @andpicon

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