Michael Wallace is a middle-school science teacher who lives in Baltimore. When he’s not teaching his kids about the Mesozoic Era (remember, “meso” means “between”), Wallace rides his bike around the city. Only, while he’s riding his bike, he’s also drawing something, using GPS tracking to trace his routes throughout Baltimore and forming them into different shapes, symbols that become fully detailed pictures. There’s “Jellyfish Invasion,” a giant jellyfish created over 16-plus miles and nearly three hours of riding, and “Gat,” a massive gun that took less than an hour over about 5.5 miles of biking. So far, Wally GPX, as Wallace calls it, has produced more than 100 pictures and doesn’t appear to be slowing down.
What were your first GPS drawings like?
For some of the first ones, I would do a giant crab. I did one I call "monster head," which is this giant monster-looking-type-head thing. My early stuff, you can tell if you look at it, was kind of primitive. I hadn't really explored how far I could take it.
I've learned to bend my lines by intentionally riding on one side of the street and cutting the corner hard, swinging around the corner to make the edges rounded. I've also learned how to make the edges 90-degree angles and square. I've learned some techniques on how to add some detail, but you don't necessarily see it in some of the earlier stuff.
For the first ten rides I did, I couldn't see what I was doing as I was making them. I only knew if I'd made a winner at this specific, sweaty moment when I'd stop my GPS, pull it out, and the ride would be done. I'd look and see if I nailed it or not. That was exciting, but around the tenth ride my GPS glitched on me and force-closed, so I lost that ride. Then I found this second program that allowed me to see what I was doing while I was riding. That naturally invited me to be a little more precise with my stuff.
When was the first time you rode a bike without training wheels?
I'm really pulling out the stops here, but I really do remember the first time without training wheels. I remember getting going on my bike without the training wheels, and I just kept rolling because I didn't want to stop since I didn't know how to. I peeled off my driveway and rode around the side of the house and went right into the backyard, right across the grass. That was my first ever I'm-on-my-bike-I'm-not-falling-off, no-training-wheels moment. I couldn't tell you what year that was, but I've been riding my bike ever since.
What made you start doing GPS drawings?
Eventually, I just had this vision: "Wow, I can use GPS to track where I go and use it to spell my name." That's how it all really started. I wanted to spell my name across the streets to see if it would work, so I hopped on my bike, and in the middle of making the “W” in “Wally” I had this realization: If this works, then I can make anything.
I went online and I typed in “GPS art” and “GPS drawings,” and I found a couple other people who'd done it. I thought I'd invented something, and it turns out I didn't, but that didn't deter me. I really found a perfect way to trick myself into exercise. I need all the exercise I can get. It's not like I'm out of shape, but it's good to stay healthy.
Were these other people doing it on bikes, too?
A few guys were apparently doing this on their bikes, but their stuff seems different than mine, as it should. I've never met them, and I don't really know much about their work other than I respect it. I'm fully in recognition that I'm not the first to do this, but do enjoy adding to the world with what I'm doing.
One guy put a GPS on his lawnmower, and he put it on his dog and let it run around. He's a professional artist, so that's what he does. It's really cool. There's another guy who does all different kinds of artwork, and he made this “space invader” out in San Francisco, so I made my own “space invader” and dedicated it to him.
Were you into artsy stuff as a kid?
I took a studio art class when I was a freshman in high school that I really liked. I'm a geologist. I have an undergraduate and masters degree in geology and earth sciences, and I teach earth and physical science to seventh- and eighth-graders. I try to bring a slant of creativity to everything I do. There's more than one way to contribute to the world. Creativity comes in all different flavors and forms.
Do you look at this like exercise that just happens to create art? Or is it more like art that just requires exercise?
It's kind of a hybrid of all of that. I've got a couple images where I've tried something provocative. I drew a gun across the city of Baltimore. I drew a giant syringe—plight of the city-type stuff. But I also do a lot of lighthearted, whimsical stuff because I think that's a lot of fun, too.
I'm not going on these rides, thinking OK, here's my exercise for the day. It just so happens that in the making-of I get this great exercise as part of the deal. That's the point of trying to trick myself into exercise: you don't realize you're exercising when you're in the middle of it. When you play sports, for example, you're running to the ball but you don't realize you're running because you're just playing the sport, so it just kind of comes with the territory. For me, it's just really interesting because it's not over when the bell rings or the buzzer goes off. It's over when the picture's done. Some images require me to go a little bit extra-long and some are quicker. When I'm out there, I know that I'm trying to make something, and I want other people to enjoy it. To bring a lot of smiles to people has been super-fun. The exercise is just an additional benefit.
At first glance, the pictures look relatively simple, but there's more nuance to it, then.
There's a little more to it, not much more, but a little bit. What I'll typically do is print out a map of the city. Then I'll start to sketch and see if anything jumps out at me. I'll think about what I'm interested in making and try to find a way to make it all fit, using the streets as the places I can go. I'm very fortunate to have a large park in the middle of my region, Patterson Park. It's a perfect place because I can zoom into the middle of it and curve my lines a little bit before heading back out into the more gridded structure at the outside of the park.
So, I'll map out what I'm going to do, and then I'll look at it in satellite view to confirm that there's actually a pathway where I'm trying to go on. In satellite view, I can look for landmarks. Then I start shooting lines, I call it, in the park. I'll be heading in a certain direction and then I'll say, “OK I have to aim at this tree in order to keep this line I'm going for.” I study that out ahead of time, so I'll put notes on the map, reminding myself "OK, you're gonna aim for this tree" or "Don't miss this street." Little things like that.
How long does it normally take from start to finish, from idea to completion?
My quickest turnarounds were 24 hours. I had a couple that I dreamt up and I was really excited about, so I just jumped on my bike the very next day. Then there've been several that I've tabled. I worked on them, set them aside, then came back and re-worked them. Then there have been ones that I’ve taken over a year to finish. There were a couple rides I designed in 2010 but didn't ride until 2011.
Is there a certain part of the process you enjoy more than the rest? Is it the creative part or the actual riding?
Right before I start riding, I try to get my attitude feeling good. I try to get a good vibe going. There are a lot of unknowns out there in the city. You don't know what you're going to bump into or what you're going to see. I get to places where a street might be getting worked on or there are police officers on the street or there are places I can't go. I bring a little golf pencil with me in case I have to make some adjustments on the fly as I'm riding.
So, getting a good vibe and energy before I start is important for me. When I'm actually riding there's a lot joy associated with just the riding of the bike and zooming around. It can be a little nerve-wracking at times, especially if you're deep into a ride. You don't want to make a mistake because it can ruin everything. You really have to keep your focus up. It's not just brainless exercise. I have to think about where my next turn's going to be and what I'm going to do with it, constantly referring to the map in my hand.
I really like the feeling of when I complete the ride. When I pull off to the side of the road and I know I'm done, I click and save, and then send it off to my spot in the cloud. It's a great feeling when you know you've pulled it off.
What ride was the hardest for you?
I felt great the other day when I finished “Godzilla Versus Mothra.” That was a 22.61-mile ride, my longest ride to date. I expended a lot of mental and physical energy, but when I finished that one it felt really special.
You'd be surprised by what's tough and what isn't tough. Going into the park is difficult. I can't really explain how tricky it is to go into the park and make a perfect circle on your bike. You think you're doing it, but you really need to have some spatial awareness.
Do you consider this all art? Or is there another word you'd use?
Other people have used the phrase "GPS art," but I've started calling it "Virtual Geoglyphic Adventure." It's “virtual” since there's nothing left behind. “Geoglyphic” because—you know what geoglyphs are, like the Nazca Lines. So, it's like a virtual geoglyph. And then it’s “adventure” because when I'm doing these things I really don't know what I'm gonna see out there. Baltimore is happening no matter what.
In what ways has Baltimore—the city's layout, the things you run into—been conducive to you doing all this? How has it not?
Baltimore is perfect in many ways because I've discovered this problem called "GPS Bounce." If you ride too closely to very tall structures, sometimes you'll lose your GPS signal and it'll bounce me into spots I'm not actually in. One of the neat things about Baltimore is that the region I'm in doesn't have that many super-tall buildings, so I've got a nice grid structure with the great park I've already mentioned, which is very conducive to what I'm doing. Those are just some reasons why Baltimore's perfect for me.
Why it's imperfect? That's a tough one. It doesn't seem imperfect in any way. There is an area I get into some times that has some tall buildings, where I've glitched and lost my signals a few times. I used to come across these phantom roads, but I've rode my area so much that I know where they all are now, so I avoid them.
I come across fences in the park and a couple areas where there are fences in the street. So, I've got these little tricks where I'll put my phone through the fence and I'll ride my bike all the way around the block and pick my phone up on the other side of the fence and keep going. And sometimes I'll muscle my bike over the fence and just hop it. If I need to go through the tennis courts in Patterson Park, I'll lift the fence up on the side and slide my phone under. Then I'll zip around, get through the court, and bring the phone to the other side. That stuff is mildly amusing. It's kind of funny when people see me do that, too.
Are you worried about people starting to recognize you?
You know, I'm still so anonymous. No one really knows, but every two or three rides I'll get someone driving by where they honk and point at me. Sometimes I'll see friends who know what I'm up to. It's not happening all the time, but it's starting to happen. I did a morning radio interview and more people are now becoming familiar with what I'm doing. I think it’s probably only going to keep getting crazier.
Do you hope to make some money from all of this?
I've put a lot of sweat equity into this. My site is not set up for commerce. It's a complete rookie, flash website. But that could change in the future. I could switch things around and see what I can do in terms of money. I haven't promoted these images for sale, but people have offered me money for them.
This is sort of touchy because if you write the next great American novel on Microsoft Word, do you owe Microsoft some money? If I take a great photo on a Kodak camera, do I owe Kodak anything? Considering I'm using GPS in an untraditional matter, I don't want to get sued by Google for selling pictures I made on their platform even though it's my artistic property.
Have you considered riding in some cities other than Baltimore?
Oh yeah. This summer I'm going to go for it and do as many rides as I can around here. In future summers, I might consider taking this on the road, going somewhere new, or trying something different. I'm very curious. I don't know where this is gonna take me. It’s been a great ride so far. I'm really enjoying it.
Do you own a car?
Yeah, I'm actually sitting in it right now in the back parking lot.
What's next for Wally GPX?
“Steve Irwin” is the next ride coming up. I'm gonna attempt to ride a gigantic pirate ship that's gonna be really cool and is going to take all day. I'm really building up to this one called "Continental Drift," which is all the continents. I have no idea how long that's going to take me, but I'm going to start in the morning and go all day until it's done. I need to go to RadioShack to buy one of those devices that gives your phone a little extra juice because I just don't know how long it's gonna take to pull this off. I've got probably 35 more rides I'm planning on taking this summer.