Over the past several years, the phenomenon of love locks (or “love padlocks”) has spread to 5 continents.
To symbolize their love, couples place a lock – often with their names written or engraved on it – on a bridge or fence or sculpture and throw away the key.
Locks Are Cheap
It’s an activity most popular with tourists, who often believe they’re participating in a harmless local custom. Perhaps they feel that snapping the lock shut binds them to the city, as well as their partner. Like carving initials into a tree, it’s a way people leave their mark on a place they love, unaware they’re damaging it in the process.
Part of the ritual’s appeal is its immediacy. It’s easy enough to get a lock and clasp it to a bridge, and then you have this very tangible expression of an intangible emotion, something solid and (seemingly) permanent. Something you can take a photo of before you have to catch your flight home.
There’s a communal aspect to both the act and the sharing of it, as if you’ve participated in some community art project that also happens to make a colorful photo backdrop. (See also: the gum wall at Seattle’s Pike Place Market.)
The fact that the practice spread so quickly just as social media was taking off is probably not a coincidence. Online networks have helped all kinds of ideas to spread, especially ones that come with a compelling visual.
If You Like It, Then You Shouldn’t Put a Lock on It
Locals, on the other hand, tend to see the locks as vandalism, ruining the views of their city.
Whatever your opinion on the aesthetics of a padlock-covered bridge, the locks can damage structures. A single padlock would be no big deal, but some European bridges have been covered in hundreds of thousands of them, adding on several tons of weight.
Cities have reacted in a variety of ways – banning locks, removing them, creating alternate places for locks. In some cases, when the bridge is less historic and/or the locks less damaging, they decide to shrug it off.
While companies that sell love locks perpetuate the myth that the tradition is rooted in the distant past (perhaps ancient China or Serbia during World War I), the current craze began just over a decade ago.
In fact, it can be traced back to a single paragraph in an Italian novel.
Ponte Milvio: An Origin Story
Putting the Rome back in Romance Novel
Author Federico Moccia’s 2006 best-seller (and later film), Ho Voglia Di Te (I Want You) includes a protagonist telling his love interest that locking a chain around a lamppost on the Ponte Milvio in Rome and throwing the key into the Tiber River below means you’ll always stay together.
According to an interview in the New York Times, the author “just dreamed up the ritual” and “was stunned” when locks actually began appearing on the ancient Roman bridge.
The new custom quickly spiraled out of control. Within a year, so many locks and chains had accumulated around one lamppost that it partially collapsed under the weight.
Get Your Locks Off My Lawn
If Ponte Milvio could speak, it would probably say “I’m getting too old for this shit.” It’s been around since the days of the Roman Empire. Constantine became an emperor by defeating a rival on that bridge. Nero used to hang out there and get wasted. By the time the Colosseum was built, it had already been there for 200 years.
The Roman Empire fell, but Ponte Milvio has remained. People have been crossing it for over two millennia and still walk over it every day. It does not need the extra pressure of thousands of rusty locks chained to it.
A recent Spanish edition of Moccia’s novel features the bridge and love locks on its cover.
Although Rome was the setting of the novel, the love lock trend didn’t stay confined to the Eternal City for long.
Paris: Art from the Bridge
Perhaps the most well-known love lock locale is Pont des Artes, Paris – at least it was.
After more than one instance of locks causing part of the bridge’s railing to buckle, the city began removing all the locks in 2015, replacing chain link with plexiglass panels to prevent locks and preserve the view.
Instead of simply disposing of the locks, they turned them into art and auctioned them off to raise money for organizations helping refugees (Solipam, the Salvation Army and Emmaüs Solidarité). The lots included 150 pieces made from a few locks each on a base of wood, plexiglass, or recycled paving stones. They’re actually quite elegant.
15 large lock-covered sections from the bridge’s fencing that ranged in size from 1.05 to 3.23 meters (3.4–10.5 feet) wide and weighed 240 to 660kg (529–1455 lbs) were also up for auction. They were mounted on casters, so they could be moved more easily.
In the end, a total of 10 tons of locks were sold, raising a total of €250,000 and far exceeding fundraising goals for the auction.
Make Love, Not Locks
There were over 700,000 locks on the Pont des Artes before they were removed. That’s 700,000 people who thought it would be a good idea to get a lock and leave it on a Paris bridge. Assuming each lock represents a couple, it would actually be more like 1.4 million people.
Of course, there are many more people who cross the bridge without leaving a lock. And other bridges over the Seine, including Pont de l’Archevêché, have been covered with locks, as well. It is a staggering analogy to the tourist traffic of certain cities, and the impact that number of people can have on a place.
An organization called No Love Locks has started in Paris to educate the public, stop the practice, and look for alternatives.
Paris also launched a campaign encouraging couples to post a selfie tagged #lovewithoutlocks instead of leaving a lock. Signs were posted on bridges that said “Our bridges can no longer withstand your gestures of love. No more love locks!” Photos were being posted on lovewithoutlocks.paris.fr, but the page hasn’t been updated recently.
The Paris Convention and Visitors’ Bureau lists romantic ways to enjoy the city – unsurprisingly, it doesn’t mention love locks.
Toronto: There’s a Place for Locks
The removal of the locks at Pont des Artes in Paris inspired developer Mathew Rosenblatt to create a permanent place for couples to put love locks in Toronto’s Distillery District. The metal sculpture spells out “LOVE” and is made for attaching padlocks.
Of course, a solution like this works well for a Toronto side street but wouldn’t have the capacity for a heavily-touristed Paris thoroughfare. On a much larger scale, though, maybe a structure like this could work in those high traffic areas too.
Venice Makes the Cut
Love locks have also covered several historic bridges in Venice – 20,000 have been counted on the Ponte dell’Accademia alone.
As on many other bridges, they are periodically removed by the city, so you’re really not locking up your love forever.
During a recent visit to Venice, community organizer Dawn Hawk took matters into her own hands, buying bolt cutters and clearing the locks from 30 bridges. A gondolier blew kisses in gratitude.
[UPDATE: Dawn wanted me to let you know it was actually her husband Mark that bought the bolt cutters and removed the locks – 400 of them! She interacted with onlookers, checked in with locals, and researched metal recycling options.]
The site In-Venice specifically lists love locks in their top 10 list of things not to do in the city.
I Fought the Locks and the Locks Won
Cologne Tourism, on the other hand, encourages you to see the love locks on the Hohenzollern Bridge over the Rhine River.
As of October 2013, there were over 155,000 love locks on the bridge, weighing an estimated 15 to 20 tons. German Rail engineers studied the bridge and determined the weight was not causing a problem. It will continue to be monitored and policies may change if the strain becomes too great.
Tony Kerzmann of Robert Morris University noted that today’s bridges are “highly over-designed” as a precautionary measure. “They have what is called a factor of safety as high as seven in some cases, meaning an engineer determined the maximum weight that the bridge would possibly see and then designed the bridge to hold seven times that weight. Even if the bridge were covered with locks, the extra few thousand pounds should have no effect on the structural integrity of the bridge.”
Pulau Penang Promenade
Penang Hill in Malaysia created a place specifically for love locks. The resort town on the island of Penang encourages couples to decorate and add locks to their “lovers’ promenade,” which they call “Malaysia’s contribution to the world’s legacy of love.” Located on the Bukit Bendera observation deck, Love Lock Penang Hill opened on Valentine’s Day 2014.
Red (Ribbon) Wedding
I had a lot of trouble finding information on love locks in China. I was particularly interested in verifying the lore about the tradition originating somewhere in the country long before it appeared in a romance novel.
The closest I got was one account of a wedding tradition in Yangmei Zhan, which is in the south near Nanning. A bride and groom tie red ribbons and a padlock to an old tree, tossing the key into a river or other body of water. How long this has been going on and whether it’s likely to be the root of the current love lock phenomenon is unclear.
The Great Locks of China
There are plenty of photos of love locks on the Great Wall and on guard fencing in the Yellow Mountains (Huangshan). However, I couldn’t find any real information on when people started attaching them there or what reactions have been. The locks don’t look any older than the ones in Paris or Rome. And perhaps they are spread out enough that the weight isn’t a problem and isolated enough that locals don’t complain.
Moscow: Locks and Kisses
A wedding tradition in Russia is that the newlyweds should kiss on a bridge.
To keep these kissing couples out of traffic, Moscow constructed a pedestrian bridge. On this Bridge of Kisses are several iron tree sculptures that couples can attach locks to instead of the bridge’s railings.
L.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.
A year after its installation, locks had already started appearing on the Bridge of Sighs in Natchez, Mississippi. City officials decided to take a proactive stance, cutting the locks off the bridge before there was time for many to accumulate.
There are several bridges in the Pittsburgh area with love locks, including the Schenley Bridge and Three Sisters bridges. Officials there, however, periodically monitor the stress on the structures and have determined the added weight is not a problem. They remove locks to perform maintenance, but otherwise leave them be.
At Tlaquepaque in Sedona, Arizona, there are love locks for sale and a metal trellis where you can attach them.
There’s actually a town called Lovelock outside of Reno, Nevada. While the name comes from Welsh-born settler George Lovelock, the town has embraced the tradition with a plaza devoted to love locks and an “endless chain” where you can lock a symbol of your love.
– More info –
- Love lock locations
- Catalog of auctioned locks from Pont des Artes (PDF)
- “Love in the Time of Padlocks: Has a Craze on the World’s Bridges Gone Too Far?” (National Geographic)
- Bridges of Venice
- Historical Chinese Padlocks
8. Martin Pilát*
9. Heather Stimmler (@secretsofparis)**
10. Crédit Municipal de Paris
11. François Grunberg / Mairie de Paris via Paris.fr
12. Sacha Quester-Séméon (@sachaqs)**
13. twiga269 ॐ FEMEN*
Pulau Penang –
21. Harry and Rowena Kennedy*
32. Ghita Katz Olsen*
*Via Flickr. CCL.