Category Archives: hand-drawn maps

The Loosely-Sketched World

We’re familiar with considering “art” as a way to further or accentuate the representational qualities of cartography, and treating the map as if it were a system of perception–rather than viewing each as separate but analogous representational systems.  This shifts, however, when we use art to naturalize mis-perceptions of global relations.  We are accustomed to describe the relations between cartography and art as if they were separate disciplines, rather than congruent tools, barely touching, inventing a new sort of landscape to be inhabited and seen.  The addition via photoshop of satellite photographs of the earth’s surface to the hand-drawn world projections that Michigan high school student Zack Ziebell solicited from folks he encountered on the University of Michigan’s campus create a striking global distribution:   although the data sample from which he collected is ridiculously small by statistical samples–and wouldn’t be something that any respectable sort of crowd-sourced map would consider credible or worthy of attention–Ziebell’s creative map has attracted significant world wide attention because of the compelling image that he was able to craft from it.  Indeed, our recognition of the eerily photoshopped composite reveals our familiarity with the manipulation of cartographical tools and media, as much as a restricted sense of geographic knowledge.

The artifice of a cartographical flattening the world’s surface seems totally removed from a sense of accurate representation in the on-the-fly images resulting from requests Zeibell made of a group of folks on the U of M campus to map the world’s continents as best they could, without the aid of rulers or model, and without looking at an actual printed map.  The below image of the world revealed the blurred forms of their collective conceptions of mapped space, and is oddly emptied of content and place-names.  The ghostly outlines of these imagined continents resemble a Rorschach test more than a map, although the smoky apparent ink-blots, rather than invite interpretation, record the multiple prejudices and omissions of the limited geographic horizons of participants who responded to Zeibell’s particular request.  The resulting synthesis reveals the divergences and variations between how a randomized group of individuals in Michigan mapped the contours of the inhabited world as best they could, without the benefit of consulting any sources, reveal a loose attitude to the map as a repository of data to say the least:

Collective  Sketch Map

If world maps have long been refined as composites of knowledge, whose permutations might be described as “trading zones” of knowledge from different orders of expertise, the outlines of these uncannily nebulous continents offer a record of cartographical authority in crisis.

The ghostly outlines of continents that are a composite synthesized 30 hand-drawn maps that subjects constructed from memory and on the fly–twenty-nine, to be exact, with one by its creator, the high-school student Ziebell, who created it as an art project.  The folks he stopped and invited to draw maps on a blank sheet of paper weren’t perhaps focussing on summoning their geographic knowledge, but also didn’t seem to think that the task was that relevant, evidently, to their own competencies, and are easy to take as evidence of a familiarity with the fact that maps are, in our society, more apt to be downloaded than drawn, and directions for travel given by phones, rather than described with reference to a printed maps.  For as much as leading us to blame Google Maps or geographic literacy, we can also recognize how much rarer it is to draw maps–or indeed to read them–as something other than as purely symbolic forms.

Few are accurate freehand cartographers, to be sure, and few of the respondents could claim to be skilled cartographers.  But they adopted a strikingly lax attitude to the notion of mapped space.  Although the statistical sample was not at all randomized or representative, and shows little close to a scientifically significant result, one can’t help but wonder if it reflects on an age of downloadable maps, and a time in which the drawn line has become less of a unit of geographic meaning than pixellated screen, resulting in a distinctly different period eye.  The images are pretty shocking for how they suggest blinders on the geographic horizons of map-users:  in most, Japan oddly melds to the Asiatic blur; the gulf of Mexico is bridged; Anatolia is absent; much of the Middle East is melded with Africa; the insularity of England fades; and, indeed, the South Asian sub-continent either disappears or is melded with Asia.  As each tries their hand at flattening the world’s surface to a plan, the result caricatures Americans’ knowledge about the greater world illiterate and the limits of Americans’ geographic literacy, provoking incredulous reactions of disdain from around the world, from Turkish newspapers–who lamented the absence of their country, “Bu haritada Türkiye yok!” [There is no Turkey!]–to the sanguine observation of Mexican television stations, who noted with some disdain how “India was glued to Africa and Saudi Arabia” in the final composite, while remaining silent on whether it was a plus or minus that their own country was expanded and melded into a radially reduced South American continent.

Analyzing the map is beside the point, perhaps.  But the individual items, as much as the composites, suggest a devaluation of the drawn line as a unit of meaning in maps, perhaps tied to limited familiarity with reading mapped space or low expectations for cartographical detail or clear boundary lines.  And since being placed by Ziebell on Reddit, despite the small sample on which it was based, the composite made rounds world-wide as an illustration of geographic disinformation of a country that still prides itself on being a global superpower.  For the composite almost seems, in fact, about as accurate and as formalized and symbolic as “T-in-O” mappaemondi that depicted the inhabited world in the first printed maps before the discovery of America:  whatever sense of referentiality that the world map may have enjoyed, it seems to vanish if one looks at the mapping abilities of the folks Ziebell invited to map the earth’s surface among those he encounger on the U of M campus for his personal project for a pre-college program in fine arts.  In ways that suggest a neat cartographic collaboration, Zeibell scanned and combined he twenty-nine images drawn by pen with an image of his own creation, which he took as the basis to remold a NASA LandSat image of the world’s surface, by using Photoshop to fill the contours of received wisdom to see what sort of landmass would result within “the new forms of the continents” that resulted from his questionnaire.  In contrast the the blurry Rorschachs, the redistribution of satellite photography wierdly seems to invite us to inhabit what can only be described as a newly invented and radically reconfigured land, which, for viewers now familiar with futuristic maps of global warming, suddenly gains a sense of potential plausibility–until we realize its photoshopped nature:

Collective Sketch Maps

Thankfully, this image is inventing a landscape that we can only be inhabited for a short time; once posted on Reddit, the flattened projection is not of the earth’s continents or surface, but more is compelling as a projection suddenly talismanic of the deformed geographical sensibilities of folks in the United States.  But its photoshopped topographic realism offers  a perverse echo of how the Renaissance artist Stradanus’ fantasia of Amerigo Vespucci, pendant astrolabe in hand, inviting viewers to survey the luscious woods of a new continent and its bestiary, having debarked from his wind-pushed galleon to awaken an imaginary sleeping Amerindian, as he invited readers to enter the lush landscape of a newly discovered continent.

Vespucci Views American Landscape

As an art project, the resulting map suggests the wide availability of cartographical media at our disposal as well as it also illustrates an odd flattening of cartographical significance.  While these maps were surely not drawn by world travelers, or for the end of travel, they seem to empty the map of data in striking ways:  despite the somewhat detailed coherence of the continent of Australia, elision of the Persian Gulf or disappearance of South Asia is jarring, if perhaps less striking than the disappearance of Florida and apparent reappearance of the island of California.  The new land that viewers are asked to consider in the final composite eerily redraws the shorelines of the familiar world to a futuristic landscape of receding waters, contracted continents, and inflated landmasses, all betraying a striking lack of surety–as if divorcing data from the format of a map.

The off-the-cuff nature of world-mapping as a practice indeed suggests something of an anti-Ortelian populism in Ziebell’s synthesis of what seem numerous cartographical proposals of folks, to be sure, approached without any interest in their relative reliability–indeed Zeibell’s seems the one map that rooted his collection of map-images in something approaching a sense of cartographical accuracy–especially when it is comparison to the slap-dash doodles that many invited offered when asked to execute an image of the world map as best they were able by freehand, before leaving the High School student with a pretty sketchy world map in hand:

freehand map #3

Most striking might be the limited sense of points of interest on which to tether or ground the map, or any clear sense of the map as a bearer of any information:  if there is an obligatory notation of Atlantic islands above, the map seems a formalized image free of variables, and seems without informative content of its own.  (One can almost see the expressions on the faces of the multiple cartographers, wondering why in the world Zack would be asking them to draw such a thing of limited utility or meaning.)  The almost entire absence of few indices or bearings suggests a virtual absence of data in the map as a record and little authority for the map as a document.

“It is easier to have a map that is spelt right than one that has information in it,” Mark Twain wrote in his account of his world travels in the aptly-titled Following the Equator, when he sought to explain the arrival of the Maori in New Zealand from the region of modern Polynesia.  In describing how the first Maori might have reported news of their arrival in New Zealand, he pondered the route by which he communicated the route of discovery to his people so that they might successfully return to the new land of New Zealand:  “He told where he came from, but he couldn’t spell well, so one can’t find the place on the map, because people who cold spell better than he could, spelt the resemblance all out of it when they made them map.”  There is no equatorial line in the maps that Ziebel collected, or in the map he photoshopped from satellite photographs.  In a world where mapping one’s origins in space are of less clear value, is it possible that we have begun to map the resemblance of regions from the maps we make up?

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Filed under crowd-sourced maps?, Following the Equator, geographic literacy, hand-drawn maps, NASA Landsat Images, on-the-spot cartography, photoshopped maps

The Recent Resurgence of Manually Made Maps

A somewhat celebratory survey of the recent rage for manually designed maps affords a veritable visual smörgåsbord of aesthetic pleasure and innovative graphical design.  It is interesting and tempting to compare them to the craftsmanship of manuscript maps, a subject discussed in an early post in this blog.  But the survey oddly makes little reference to the notion of the ‘counter-map’ that resists the omnipresence of the digitized map, and the manner we have come to be immersed in the traffic and generation of digitized maps.  To be sure, these are images suitable for framing.  But the appeal is in part a knee-jerk reaction to the satellite photo or the schematic land view.

In mediating a more fully stylized map of first-hand knowledge of urban areas clearly reacts to the increased hegemony of Google Maps–add your own business here!  map your way to work!  note your favorite coffee shop or restaurant near work!–as a plastic form of collective memory.  And, of course, a data resource on which Google can draw  in its own work.  The hand-drawn map is the map stripped of metadata and made without surveying instruments.  For the self-made map re-invests the format of mapping with a vibrancy and immediacy to enliven inhabited space once more–and indeed enliven the medium of the map that seems to slip out of our grasp as it turns up on our hand-helds, and even tracks our own habits of shopping, physical movement, data usage and cel phone use.  When we see the self-made map–and we buy them because of this–on Etsy or in the house of hipsters, we re-recognize places, and subscribe to how they define our emotional relation to space in ways that many other web-based maps make us feel more alientated.

If our memories are recorded in our maps, which note centers of interest, sites of pilgrimage, historical buildings, or public parks, the processing of how we track places worldwide in Google Maps is not somehow wrong or diminished, but has the sad effect of erasing any sense of specificity.  There is a display value of the map that is diminished from its reappearance on a tablet or smart phone, but also a dramatically reduced range of semantics or iconography:  it’s hard to imagine Charles Sanders Pierce, who enjoyed his spell of work on the conventions of map making and determination of spatial coordinates for the US Geodetic Survey, dressed in a neon shirt emblazoned with a corporate logo, using his expertise to boast of the benefits of Google Maps in tutorials.  The semantics of the Google Maps project is geared not toward innovation, but streamlined synthesis and ready access, after all.

And there is something of an erosion of display-value of the digitized map approximating Walter Benjamin’s concept of aura, since the refinement of data in digitized form approximates a concept of disembodied mechanical reproduction:  the emotional tie to the map is in a sense severed, the trace of the hand absent, the physical touching of the map’s surface gone.  These maps provide the clues and signs to reconstruct a mental map of place in one’s mind’s eye, rather than synthesizing the authoritative satellite composites whose clicks release downloaded data, but draw fewer associations from synaptic ties.  The focus of enriching the map’s metadata removes any trace of the hand.

Mapmakers like the artist Jenny Sparks set out to recuperate the specificity in place that still exists and see the map as a medium to invite the viewer to explore.  While there’s a tendency to map a uniform green, Sparks’ comprehensive imaginary but copiously detailed ichnographic stark rendering of the collective architecture of elevated skyscrapers in New York in 3D, in ways that collapse street-view into a crisp crowding of built boxes.  The map, interspersed with memories and words, includes Bob Dylan on 4th Street; Beatniks in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square; and the Farmer’s Market on Astor Place, and is interactively enriched with text.   Sparks winks at the zoom function of Google in the elevated buildings  of Manhattan, each carefully drawn, and words that unpack the cornucopia of memories that the built space of the city holds, as some sort of metonymy for its residents.


New York map by Jenni Sparks


The pop-up three dimensionality of the map plays with the flattened two-dimensional view of maps, but suggests a bird’s eye view into which viewers can peer.  A few close-up details of Sparks’ self-made map of reveal how the skilled placement of words among 3-D buildings in her imagined elevated view draws you into a space linked or bound by the colored avenues of underground subway lines, peering into its so densely cluttered detail:


Close-up of New York map by Jenni Sparks

The closer one looks, the easier to see an image of place saturated with the visual interest that Google Maps just fail to afford, as one falls into the map in order to get to know its neighborhoods, suggesting a unique zoom-in function that the clumsy navigability of Street View only approximates:

Sparks' NYC


The rise of the hand-drawn map not only is a testament to design or a rebirth of a craft, but uses precepts of design to counter the vagaries of digitization Google so actively promotes, in championing the synthetic properties of a register of businesses, places, and personal routes.  I’ve written elsewhere, earlier in the year, about Becky Cooper’s recent anthology of the recent efflorescence of maps that personalize one’s relation to place, almost a collection of tools to encode personal meanings for a broader audience.  These images recuperate the aura of the map and its materiality, its hand-made status and both the physical practices of encoding place and decoding space.

Something similar is going on in how Stephen Wiltshire draws Manhattan’s skyline from memory, lovingly attending the scale, proportions, and perspective views of each of the many skyscrapers whose sight so impressed Wiltshire on his first trip out of England that he promised to move to New York “in the future,” and claimed to have already designed his Park Avenue penthouse.  Wiltshire’s retention of and fascination with urban environments has been discussed by Oliver Sacks, and is the subject of Cities (1989) or Floating Cities (1991).  But his drawings are the intuitive opposite of a map’s abstraction of place by selectivity and spatial remove.




Unlike Wiltshire’s intuitive renderings of urban space, the abstraction of space of a place underlies these hand-made maps, which sketch something like a hierarchy of relevance within their totality.  There’s a huge appeal in reclaiming the map as an intimate record of place, as well as an art of encoding meanings that encourage further examination, as this “mash-up map” based on the personal experience of Shawn Watts, and might be best described as his spatial experience of a long-distance relationship, compiling the places they had been together not only in his native Montreal, but in Athens, Washington, DC, and Philadelphia, as well as Montesquieu, France, and reflects his own deep pleasure in “hiding secrets in maps” as opposed to publishing information, and a pleasure in using the map’s form to map or be the surrogate for an interior emotional state:


Shawn Watt's Shutterbug


For Watts, the density of meaning in maps becomes a way to unravel and eloquently express one’s own state of mind in public form, and to invite the viewer to partake in the pleasure of decoding its contents.


Hope Mapped


This somewhat but only partly legible hand-made silkscreen map of London comes in varied colors, populating areas with figures and words to approximate a paper cut-out hanging as much as a map:



If these maps treat the map as an artwork, the trace of the hand on the map is even more present in the medium of linotype map, recalling Renaissance single-point engravings or woodblocks.  The linotype word-map Marc Webber designed of Amsterdam, a historical center or clearing-house for engraved maps, places front and center the words often absent from Google Earth or many digitized maps to use them to fashion a sculpted cityscape, whose linotype words offer something of an alternate surface to see the city in one’s mind’s eye:




In Webber’s ‘map’ of Amsterdam, the written landscape becomes a site to explore and its very surface a sight to ponder; the texture of its woodblock words gains new textural richness as it is seen from different angles, from which the materiality of place-names on its linoleum-like surface increases in impact:


Amst Linotype-Looking at Map's Surface


Moving in to examine details more closely, the map assumes status as a surrogate for the world, as if the one-to-one map of which Borges dreamed or described is suddenly translated to words that substitute for things, as well as to the notion of a word-map:




The Central Station assumes a newfound concrete prominence that transcends its place-name, without the curled Stedelijk Museum beside it, from a distorted view of this mapped space:


Somwhat more derivative or second-generation forms of manual mapping already exist on the market, as the sort of silkscreen word-maps popular in New York that maps the city’s neighborhoods, many of which are as much destinations as the city itself–and might provide a tourist map of realty.  If it is meant to evoke neighborhoods, it oddly recalls  real estate, even as its cartographical transcendence of space seeks to create something like a cascade of memories whose every words might serve as triggers, rooted within lived experience.


Manhattan word map


If the map seems a bit of a bare-bones realty map to the uninitiated in New York life, it is far less elegant and inviting than pictorial perspective views realtors employed of San Francisco to enjoin viewers to become settlers.


Vene! Vidi!  Vicet!


There’s far more detail in a linotype word-map of New York City.  The silkscreened map plays with the legibility with which maps use words to arrange space by surrounding Manhattan island with big, looming, isolated blocked fonts–inserting recognizable neighborhoods and cultural monuments in an what seems a more improvised mish-mosh of fonts from a printer’s tray, rather than from a pull-down menu, arranging the text to replicate what might better correspond to the place of regions within our mental geography, all the while emphasizing the extremeley crowded nature of inhabited space in New York boroughs:




Sensitive as always to the particularity of place, Marc Webber’s quirkily detailed ‘word-map’ of Paris is more elegantly artisanal in how it fills the surface of the map, exploiting a range of fonts to arrange historical layers and tiers of class and style from the staid if impressive Opera to the lounging letters of Montparnasse, moving rangily down large streets.

Paris map by Mark Webber

The written city is more demanding of a mastery of fonts, to be sure, since it also depends on the arts of assemblage; the word maps sold in the Bay Area provide a nice counterpart since its patchwork of its complicated topography is so impressively dense, and the only area of uniformity seem the Presidio or the landfill regions of Bayview:


An alternative to this sort of mapping, illuminating the micro level of street-names, graces the design of one of Upper Playground’s t-shirts, suggesting the relative size of individual streets by their prominence in a list of names, that lends currency to the idea of the wearable “map”:

Upper Playground Tees SF name map

The diversity and unity of nearby Oakland is aptly captured in this patchwork roughly-hewn word map by Oakland native Ozan Berke of its 146 neighborhoods:  the jumbled density is almost rendered illegible by crowding, but with such dexterity that the artist/mapmaker uses to capture its diversity.  The density of some neighborhoods balance the urban intensity of some areas with the far more light settlement of the hills (Montclair, Sequoia; Claremont Hills; Skyline; Joaquin Miller):

Oakland Word Map



Writing the unity of the city in a sequence of place-names reconstitute the whole in a new form, as if by magical transmutation or an alchemy of type: this artist adroitly resolves the absence of the seceded largely ‘white’ village Piedmont from the city with the contribution that this town-within-a-city continues to make, writing its “name” as a neighborhood in mirror-writing, the “OMD” among the largest and most eye-catching in the map.

The declarative blending of words with place resonate with the politics of remapping popularized in the urgent signs displayed in the recent Occupy Movement outside Oakland’s downtown City Hall in Frank Ogawa Plaza to the iconography of the protest movement–mapping the helicopters that whirled overhead, but minimalizing their police surveillance to the upper corner of the map, and giving prominence to the placards that protesters held in front of City Hall–the scene at which these maps were sold:


Hella Occupy System Sucks

It is fitting to contrast the map to the elegance of San Francisco should be captured in the distinct media of a paper-cutting map, adapting the Chinese art of  Jianzhi (剪纸):

Paper Cut Out SF

The remove that all place cartographical practice from digital media or design is central, I would argue:  the artist reclaims their own synthesis of a unified whole as the subject of the map.  All evoke the late Saul Steinberg’s over-reproduced map of New York, famous as a poster and originally a New Yorker cover, used to suggest the limited global perspectives of its residents or the centrality of the city in a mental map of the world.  That map has its response in the recent satire of Mad magazine’s “Slimeball” mismapping mediated by and poking fun at the recent failures of Apple Maps.  The revision of the classic Steinberg view of the New Yorker’s View of the World  plays with the spate of failures that app by calling attention to the radical disconnect between even a familair place and digitally mediated map, as if to suggest the depths at which we’ve been had!




The growth of such a range of hand-drawn maps seems to me a reclaiming of place–as well as of mapping skills–that has come to gain a special niche of its own in the craft economy.  We are discontent with the proliferation of maps from which we are increasingly alienated–and which abstract information in ways confined to, say, only three viewing preferences.

There is still a possibility of changing less the digitized reconstruction of space than the notion of what Google defines as information, of course:   and perhaps the range of hand-drawn maps suggests some ways that this might be done.  The above view of New York, or rather its prototype, makes me wonder about maps that reprioritize the structure of information imposed on the templates of Google Maps:  a map, say, that would not note the Russian Tea Room or Trump Center and Empire State, but create historical layers of Automats, bodegas, Chock Full o’ Nuts, and 5-and-10 stores or the shifting confines of invisible ethnic neighborhoods in the city, and the impact of waves of migration.  This falls back on a map of memories.  And then, after all, it probably wouldn’t be hand drawn any more.


Filed under Aura, Charles Sanders Pierce, digitized maps, hand-drawn maps, Jenny Sparks, Jianzhi, linotype map, Marc Webber, Oliver Sacks, Saul Steinberg, Shawn Watts, Stephen Wiltshire, Street View, Walter Benjamin