Stop all the the Locks!


Love locks at Namsan

When did fences become a magnet for juvenile declarations of love? Is there a moment in recent history when a film depicted someone visiting a hardware store in search of the perfect vehicle for their declaration of undying devotion, coming across a padlock, and thinking, “At last! I’ve found the messenger I’ve been searching for! Now, where’s my damn engraving pen?”

Well apparently yes, there is. While stories circulate attributing the origin of the phenomenon to a dubious “ancient custom” in China and a more recent story of Serbian heartbreak, this asinine fad really seems to have flourished with the release of a 2006 novel (and later film) depicting angst-ridden lovers ceremonially pledging their undying love with a bicycle lock on Rome’s Ponte Milvio and throwing the key into the Tiber.

Most people at least save this kind of fantastical declaration for the relative privacy of the wedding ceremony. Yes, of course there’s a sweepstake running on how long the happy couple are really going to last, but we buy into the ‘forever’ if someone’s shelled out 30k on a horse drawn carriage and a puffy white frock. Not so much when they’ve spent $2.99 on a cheap padlock.

Call me a cynic, but – with the exception of China, about which I’ve found nothing further other than unsubstantiated references – the founding moments of the trend all seem to focus on exactly the kind of love no-one wants to pledge. A Serbian woman who committed suicide or died of heartbreak after her lover left her for another woman, and a book about a love triangle where the guy pledges undying love to a former girlfriend before ending up with the new model.

Locks SarajevoLocks on Sarajevo’s Latin Bridge: for love that says, “Shoot me here and start the biggest disaster of the 20th Century”

As if to further illustrate the point, the locks have extended to Juliet’s balcony in Verona. When I visited in 2004, desperate expressions of undying love were limited to hundreds of Post-It notes plastered around the little courtyard. At the time, I found it hilarious that people thought the story of doomed, underage lovers who had sex once and then poisoned themselves after half their family members had killed each other was an appropriate star to hitch their wagon to. However, since the love locks craze took off, the post-its have been upgraded to these obnoxious metal latches. I can see the attraction. If you’re insecure enough in your romance that you feel the need to lock someone into it and throw away the key, a Post-It note probably won’t say, “Our love is a prison” in quite the same way.

The Shard and Tower Bridge from the love locks on Millenium bridge.

The Shard and Tower Bridge from the love locks on Millenium bridge.

Due to my travels, I didn’t encounter love locks until 2013. The first lonely set that I saw – a meagre handful of padlocks drifting on the rails of the Millenium Bridge in London, I didn’t even register. Thinking they were an oddity but a nice frame for a photo of the Shard, I snapped away.

Love locks at Namsan

Love locks at Namsan

A couple of months later, visiting the most obvious tourist spots when I first arrived in Seoul, I encountered East Asian pragmatism at its best at the top of Namsan, the magnificently be-towered mountain park. The lookout point at the base of the tower had lock fences set up so you could declare your love overlooking one of the best views in the city. It was bursting at the seams with locks. Locks upon locks, with additional symbolism locked in such as the lucky red padlock with its combination set to lucky 888, a sure sign of Chinese tourist love. With a practical eye on a monetisable opportunity, Seoul’s City Hall advertises the attraction of this spot on their tourist website, Similarly, a visit to the floating sky garden at the top of the Umeda building in Osaka featured a love photo-zone: a corner overlooking the river with a lock fence, love seat and handy photo spot.

Neatly apportioned spaces for these things in specifically prescribed places, allowing teen sweethearts to indulge their K-Pop inspired fantasies of love and buildings or municipalities to capitalise upon it, I can thoroughly get on board with. The enterprising Parks and Recreation department of Kansas City in the US even sell their own padlocks and use the money to maintain green spaces around the city (Huffington Post). Boosting the economy through increased business for locksmiths, teen pocket money, and youth tourism seems the best way to positively channel the energy of dumb love.

The down sides are highlighted by the much publicised collapse of a section of the Pont des Artes in Paris, the high profile “Unlock your love” campaign in Venice seeking to save a number of the city’s historic bridges, and the removal of the offending locks from Rome’s ancient Ponte Milvio, the ‘ground zero’ of the craze. As well as being an irritation to both misanthropic tourists such as myself and local residents of areas plagued by these love-bominations, they are also now classed as vandalism by a number of authorities and can attract fines.

Fortunately, there are an interesting array of people fighting this scourge. A bit of clicking around the topic online revealed a body dedicated to ‘locksport’ which defines the habit of picking locks for fun because locks are challenging, rather than picking locks because you’re a thief and locks conceal treasure. The Open Organisation Of Lockpickers, or TOOOL, advocates expeditions to unpick love locks in places where they have been banned or cause a public nuisance. They include a handy list of ‘Ethical Rules for Love Picking’ for those who wish to join the cause, including that locks should be removed and preserved and perhaps recycled into art to respect the feelings of those who stamped their emotions on a lock, rather than taken home as trophies or binned.

There is also the ongoing battle by to keep Paris’ bridges and heritage sites free of lovelocks. Their tagline, “Free your love. Save our bridges” is close to but perhaps not as direct as that of Venice’s ‘Unlock your love,’ which states baldly: “Your love doesn’t need chains. Venice doesn’t need your garbage.”

For a curmudgeonly tourist like myself, after a days scowling at the foolishness of lovelocks every time I went to cross a bridge or walk past a fence, there’s no better place to recuperate than the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb or, if you’re lucky, on tour in a location near you. This witty, honest collection of real stories and the memorabilia of relationships ended is the perfect antidote to a world full of desperate pleas for love and recognition. If love locks betoken the beginning of a fairytale romance, this museum writes the sequel in all its diverse forms. I wonder how long it might be before the collection acquires its first love lock?


The Links

The Conversation’s take on the origins of love locks and their devastating effects in Venice:

Wikipedia’s entry on the history of love locks:

The most recent inspiration for love-lockers:

The lowdown on love locks from the Huffington Post:

The Independent’s report on the collapse of the Pont des Artes:

The BBC’s ‘News from Elsewhere’ report on the ‘Unlock your Love’ campaign:

Locks removed from Ponte Milvio and Dublin’s Ha’penny bridge, The Journal:

The Open Organisation of Lockpickers:

The Museum of Broken Relationships, Zagreb:


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