Since the 2000s, a craze of modern-day votive depositional practice has spread across many European cities and elsewhere across the globe, principally on bridges and other waterfront locations. The practice might originate in Vrnjacka Banja, Serbia, where it is claimed the practice dates back to the First World War, but it was a literary inspiration leading to Italy developing the practice that seems to have inspired the worldwide recent craze. Attached to barriers, railings and fences, ‘love-locks’ have proliferated in their millions from Taiwan to New York (Houlbrook 2017).
The practice doesn’t seem to be primarily superstitious, although there are examples of such beliefs. Instead, it is principally a gesture of love, or at least an ’emotive gesture’ which aims to materialise a bond between different persons. Love-locks cohere the affinities of tourists and locals alike to specifically public locations in towns and cities. The act of locking, throwing away the key, and leaving the lock on display is connected to their enduring and cumulative presence, the aspiration is also to materialise and persist the relationships in reality and/or memory.
Love-locks thus entangle people and things with places that connect bodies of land to water (Houlbrook 2017). They also do it through adding names or initials and/or dates: the date of deposition or else significant dates in the relationship between the practitioners: anniversaries perhaps.
Many are common hardware store-purchased locks, and the power of their locking is adaption/subversion of their primary functionality. They fix an object to the place, in contrast to their principal present-day uses to bind things and close apertures. So they are bound to open, accessible places, rather than binding together (by way of example) a closed door, gate, closet, chest, casket, or bicycle. This adaption/subversion is connected to the inability for their easy removal, contrasting with floral and other ephemeral offerings found in public places. There is a growth industry in bespoke and special ‘love locks’, purchasable specifically for locking in public places. In addition to the bespoke ones, the mass-produced versions are adapted through inscription/engraving/painting/tying items on them, to make each distinctive.
To understand this phenemenon, it is important to recognise that the locks cite three forms of absence.
The first absence is material: the disposed of key(s), presumably thrown into the waters below/nearby. The lock is thus the material presence which cites the implied conspicuous disposal of an absent key. Therefore the place of tying is a liminal space between air/land and water, an act of binding but also an act of fragmentation: separating lock and key. The locks don’t make sense on their own, but in relation to the irredeemable key.
The second absence is a dual one: the two or more people for whom the lock seals a bond of affinity. The tying of the love to place implies these people dwell elsewhere in space and time, perhaps far apart from each other. The love-lock ties their relationship to a shared known destination during leisure time. The public space implies the private moments and persons in their absence.
The third absence is memory: the evocation of times past and times to come: past and future through the lock and its adornment. Perhaps as part of this is the celebration of relationships to come, a relationship’s start, and perhaps also a relationship’s cessation following break-up and/or death.
Dr Ceri Houlbrook has written about love-locks and their importance as a form of cultural heritage in The Conservation and in the Journal of Material Culture . Where they occur, they are not necessarily or exclusively situated at romantic or aesthetic places, but locations of heavy foot traffic (Houlbrook 2017).
Not everyone likes love-locks. They hold the potential, collectively, to cause actual damage to bridge’s structural integrity, and thus potentially harming people, or at least the integrity of their railings. Houlbrook notes how many of have been seen as an aesthetic threat (an eyesore) to historical architecture and the landscapes they define, most famously on the Pont des Arts in Paris.
Jonathan Jones in The Guardian has railed against the desecration of railings, admonishing practitioners as shallow vandals and proposed such practices should be derailed and curtailed. There have been attempts to curb this trend with fines and even criminalising practitioners. Fines were introduced in Rome as early as 2007. There is a No Love Locks campaign. Paris has removed millions of them – 45 tonnes – from the Pont des Arts, and this trend has been taken forward by many other civic authorities. The selling of the lovelocks for charity is taking place in Paris to raise money for refugees.
However, Houlbrook suggests that rather than view it as ‘vapid vandalism’ we should see love-locking as a present-day aspect of cultural heritage that demands research and recording despite its newness as a cultural phenomenon. She links it to far-older depositional practices associated with watery locations from the Bronze Age and Roman periods, and states: “we should be engaging with this custom now, while it’s still thriving.” Moreover, many are not simply acts of deposition/placement – they are reinscribed: recycled with additions of new names and messages, and some at least are not about romantic relationships, thus revealing the heterogeneity of the practice (Houlbrook 2017).
It is clear to me that Houlbrook is right; these are part of our cultural heritage, like ash-scattering locations, roadside memorials and other public ephemeral memorial practices. Moreover, they don’t always augment prominent tourist destinations, but a range of watery locations and bridges, including a range of different kinds of heritage sites (see also Houlbrook 2017). Houlbrook’s own example is where the Oxford Road crossing the Rochdale Canal in Manchester; a prominent, public but not evidently romantic location. Let us discuss two examples from my travels to explore love-locks further.
In addition to the prominent romantic bridge locations that have garnered most media attention, I’d point out their more modest accrual of love-locks can be found at other select heritage sites. A good example, with a riverine and maritime context, is the medieval ruined castle at Llansteffan, Carmarthenshire. At the highest point one can reach via spiral stairs in the castle, in the gatehouse tower, love-locks have been added to the horizontal iron bars that prevent visitors from falling from the ruins. With beautiful views over the Towey estuary, this is a striking romantic location. The railing is here a protection for the living, and now serve as a focus of embellishment with the love-locks. Here, I’d point out that the volume of love locks is tiny – only 2 – and they aren’t in a generic bridge location, but tied to a precise affinity to a specific historic place, and indeed a specific location in that place. A place where only a few people can access at a time via the spiral staircase. The locks bear engraved names and (in one case) a date. Where the keys were tossed, who knows?
By Houlbrook’s criteria, this has yet to become a prominent love-lock location, and perhaps given its modest footfall, it may never become so. Still, it does illustrate that goes beyond towns and cities, and beyond bridges. Indeed, on returning two years later, in September 2017, one overtly heart-shaped.
The Liverpool Love-Locks
What do we learn about the cumulative practice of love-locking en masse from an urban example? I recently visited Liverpool and I noticed where prolific love-locks have been added along the Mersey waterfront. I recall seeing these in 2015, so I know these have accrued over many years. Some are heavily decayed.
Place and Landscape
The location is absolutely central for tourists, on either side of the bridge between Canning Dock and the Mersey, around the Pilotage Building and the Piermaster’s House. In this location, almost all tourists visiting Liverpool will encounter them as they walk between the Museum of Liverpool, Tate Liverpool and the Merseyside Maritime Museum. The bridge is here a constriction, and an edge, between docks and river, and between parts of the waterfront across which walkers must pass.
We also gain a sense of the cumulative scale and visual power of the love-locks: they cluster and cover, and collectively become part of the landscape for over 150m of the waterfront.
Swags are another dimension: the preference is for locks to adhere to metal rope and chain railings, but not to the straight railings nearer the Museum of Liverpool. I’m not sure why, but perhaps because these features appear more ‘historic’ and thus embedded in the past? Perhaps for the same reason the love-locks stop and do not adorn the straight railings of the bridges themselves between Canning Dock and the Mersey, but emerge on either side of it, thus contradicting the broader trend of bridges as preferred locations.
In their location, they are not only in a prominent heritage location, indeed, a World Heritage Site, but also they are linked to key indoor memorial environments associated with Liverpool’s past: the Museum of Liverpool, the Merseyside Maritime Museum and the International Slavery Museum.
Furthermore, the love-locks have an outdoor memorial context. They line the walk between a series of discrete but connected sculptures and memorials linked to the history of Liverpool, including its Merchant Navy, a statue of rock ‘n’ roll star Billy Fury, and a statue commemorating Liverpool’s cross-Atlantic emigrants. There are also the superlambananas outside the Museum of Liverpool, each with a memorial theme commemorating dimensions of Liverpool’s culture and heritage. Each of these sculptural, monumental and memorial elements possesses a strong connection to Liverpool’s past and present. The love-locks are evidently a present-day response to this memorial environment, rather than located at a specifically ‘romantic’ location.
Micro-spatiality and Materiality
Let’s now turn to the detail of their locking and display.
Spatially, I note the preference for the top rungs of railings, while the middle and lower railings are of decreasing popularity. Is this about ease of access whilst locking, or about prominence for public display? Or both?
We can also talk about their materialities, including their varying sizes, shapes and colours. Some are clearly items selected for their distinctive aesthetics.
We can note their different messages, etched on or written on, many more ephemeral than the lock itself (see Houlbrook 2017).
There is also the association with ribbons tied to the railings too, perhaps indicative of memorials to lost loved ones as well as simply the loved.
I also note how time is written onto the locks, exposed as they are to the wind, rain, and spray from the Mersey. Thus, they collectively operate as an enduring but not fully permanent dimension of the landscape. They rust, and their messages fade and erode away.
What a wonderful project it would make to record these in a fashion equivalent to Houlbrook’s (2017) recent study?
I’d also like to observe this single example, added to a cairn of stones on top of a reconstructed Bronze Age burial mound on the summit of Penycloddiau, part of the Clwydian range in north-east Wales. This is a votive, but not tied to anything: simply rested inscribed on the summit. On the Offa’s Dyke Path, this is a monument traversed by many thousands of local and long-distance walkers each year. Seemingly this is an example of place-making for tourists: the names appear German: ‘one never goes so completely’.
Love-locks are thus even reaching hill and mountain tops where the distant views of the Dee and Mersey rivers constitute the only riverine association.
Love-locks demand careful attention by contemporary archaeologists and heritage specialists, as Houlbrook rightly argues. However, they also need to be understood materially and contextually as parts of specific heritage sites and urban memoryscapes rather than considered simply as an homogeneous ‘epidemic’. In this regard, it is not simply their recording and recognition that is required, and as Houlbrook (2017) shows, we can chart the chronology of their accumulation and the detail of love-locks at specific locations. In addition, we can consider the varied contexts they inhabit, including the spatial, citational and biographical dimensions of these accumulations as a widespread contemporary votive practice.
Houlbrook, C. 2017. Lessons from love-locks: the archaeology of the contemporary assemblage, Journal of Material Culture 1-25.