Belinda Smith often starts her runs with a “round piece of anatomy.”

“It could be an eye, or maybe an asshole,” she says.

Because most of her animals are drawn as outlines, she starts and ends her run at the same place on the map.

“So it makes sense that the start/finish is a point,” she adds.

Smith’s drawings often begin or end with a round anatomy piece represented by a dot. In this case, it is the eye of the elephant.

Smith, who is an ABC reporter, is an accidental GPS artist.

In 2013, she was training for a half marathon by running 20 km races. Traveling the same route every day, she was “intensely bored”.

“I was just looking at the map, thinking, ‘Where can I go?'” Smith said.

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“So I did it, and I directed it, and that’s kind of where it all started.”

Back in 2013, Smith had never heard the term “GPS art”.

But by running a “chat” while logged into an app called Strava, she was unwittingly participating in the niche hobby, sometimes also called “Art Strava.”

“Strava art” refers to the Strava app, which Smith uses to visually “map” her movements as she runs, often in the northern suburbs of Melbourne.

In keeping with the name of his blog – animal puns – Smith traces his routes in the form of various animals, before signing them off with a witty pun.

As she was to find out, however, there was a worldwide community of “artists” doing the same thing. Most cycle their routes, but there are some like Smith who run.

Now, nearly a decade later, she has completed over 75 animals in countries around the world.

Some notable examples include the Dane Swan in Copenhagen, the Manrattan in Manhattan and the Polar Berlin.

Belinda Smith's rat drawing in Manhattan, titled
Smith has done GPS artwork all over the world, including this one, titled Manrattan, in Manhattan, USA. (Provided: Belinda Smith)

Originally, Smith says, she started running because of its mental health benefits.

But getting into animal racing meant engaging a more creative side of the brain during exercise.

“I’m not an artist,” Smith says.

Smith also derives joy from the process of assembling an animal.

“It’s that feeling of satisfaction when you turn the corner and say to yourself, ooh, it’s a clog or something [else]. You can kind of see it forming in your mind as you do it,” she says.

An outline of a Brontosaurus,
Smith’s run in the northern suburbs of Melbourne created this image, titled Brontosaurun. (Provided: Belinda Smith)

“And then when you’re done, it’s like, ‘It’s a horse! I just ran a horse!'”

Beyond the challenge of composing an image to perform, Smith also has specific rules that make his job even more difficult.

First, she leaves her GPS on for the entire race, which means she can’t deviate from her planned path, even for a glass of water.

“I don’t like running with things [like a water bottle]unless I have to, so it can be a bit tricky,” she says.

The outline of a rabbit by Belinda Smith, titled 'hop to it'
This image is called Hop to It. (Provided: Belinda Smith)

“I often look for churches, because they tend to have taps outside. Or sometimes there’s a pipe outside a building, so I’ll sneak in.”

She also uses the National Public Restroom Map to find public restrooms on her route.

And in some cases, she has to navigate dead ends or obstacles in her path.

Belinda Smith takes a selfie of herself wearing running gear and a beanie in a Glasgow apartment
Smith rarely carries anything with her as she runs, instead stopping for water breaks along her route. (Provided: Belinda Smith)

When at home in Australia, Smith also tends to stay in her own neighborhood, rather than traveling to another part of town.

“There’s something to be said for constraints,” she says.

“It forces you to be a bit more creative when you only have such a large canvas.

“Otherwise, you may feel a little overwhelmed with all the potential places to go.

“Also, in the northern suburbs, most of the streets run parallel or perpendicular, so it’s pretty easy to create those recognizable shapes.”

“I’ve seen more places in Melbourne than a few locals”

Pravin Xeona poses in front of native trees with her bike, wearing a pink lycra vest, black pants and shoes
Pravin Xeona creates GPS art by cycling rather than running. (Provided: Pravin Xeona)

Pravin Xeona, 29, is another Melbourne-based GPS artist.

Originally from Kerala, India, he came to Australia several years ago to study a Masters in Computer Science. Now he works as a front-end developer and lives in CBD.

Like most GPS artists, Mr. Xeona is a cyclist. He came across the concept on a YouTube channel.

“I was like, ‘I could do this, it’s something that’s going to keep me healthy, but at the same time it’s creative,'” he says.

The first thing he “drew” was a Batman logo. While his “masterpiece”, he says, is a kangaroo.

Drawing by Pravin Xeona of a kangaroo in Brunswick, Melbourne
Mr Xeona’s hoodie, which he calls his masterpiece, was shared by the ABC Melbourne social media account. (Provided: Pravin Xeona)

“Everyone loved and enjoyed that one,” he says, noting that the image was shared by the ABC Melbourne team on social media.

Somewhat controversially, Mr. Xeona uses a different method than Smith to compose his artwork. While Smith never turns off his GPS, Mr. Xeona uses a “stop, start” method to complete his footage.

GPS illustration of Pravin Xeona from Mario, colored using Paint
Mr. Xeona used a computer to color this Mario artwork.(Provided: Pravin Xeona)

“If you need a straight line, it’s not like you can always find a route that looks exactly like the picture,” he explains.

“So if there’s no road or path to get where I want to go, I stop the GPS at some point and then start the journey somewhere else. The app then makes a straight line.”

Mr. Xeona laughs when asked if others think it’s “cheating”.

“Some people say that,” he says.

“And there’s some interest in that. At first I used it excessively because I wanted to get the perfect shot, but I’ve seen other people take really good shots without doing it at all, so I thought, maybe I should reduce my usage.”

Compared to Smith, Mr Xeona likes to use as much of Melbourne as possible for his “canvas”. He even generated a heatmap that shows all the places he’s cycled around town.

A photo of all the routes Pravin Xeona has taken in Melbourne - which shows journeys in all directions
This map shows the different routes Mr Xeona has cycled around Melbourne. (Provided: Pravin Xeona)

“That’s why I really like cycling. I don’t know if I’m bluffing, but I think I’ve seen more places in Melbourne than a few locals.”

And while he was stuck within three miles during Melbourne’s long lockdown, he says the art of GPS “kept him sane”.

He even created an artwork, titled Get Jabbed, to encourage vaccination.

Pravin Xeona's Get Jabbed GPS artwork in Melbourne's CBD
Mr Xeona created his artwork Get Jabbed during Melbourne’s lockdown. (Provided: Pravin Xeona)

“I couldn’t meet any of my friends or go out during this time, so I spent a lot of time planning [routes] or just looking at other people’s works for inspiration,” he says.

He also contacted other GPS artists around the world, including Christian Ohantel, based in Munich, Germany.

The couple decided to collaborate on a project, with Ohantel drawing a dingo for Mr. Xeona and Mr. Xeona drawing an eagle for Ohantel.

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“I’ve done quite a few collaborations like that,” Mr. Xeona says.

Mr. Xeona is so passionate about the hobby that he started posting his images on Reddit to encourage others to get into it.

“Every time I post an image on Reddit, people ask me, ‘How did you do that?’ “What kind of app did you use?” So I always try to give a detailed explanation.

“That’s one thing I love about it: it connects you with a lot of people.”

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