Folk Cartography

Deep and narrow streets of the old cities weave their way between the ancient buildings towering above. Here the air is thick with ages of human memory, hanging stagnant within the cobblestone alleys and swirling around church1 spires. These memories drift above the distant hills1 and are buried deep within the churned soil of fields1 adorned with a latticework of crumbling stone walls. Neither the new roads, urban sprawl, nor bombs erase them. These only add to the unending sediment of memory that covers the land.


This sediment also builds in the collective knowledge of a place’s inhabitants. Within our minds we chart our surroundings and make maps of space and meaning. From observation and experience, relationships between space and meaning are created, woven into a geographically fixed narrative.


Along a meandering street in Prague this map was found scrawled on a shop window. – its original purpose hijacked in an effort to communicate another individual’s own spatial understanding.

prague map
Map text translated to English: This shop is at a new address: Martinská 4 (painting, drawing, graphics, …) Types of trade Skořepka street at: Spalena 27 (hobby, craft, …)

The map at first stands out for having at least two sources of information, each focused on communicating a different set of messages to readers. Its original purpose, concerning the location of specific shops, has been hijacked in an effort to communicate a different understanding of the surrounding area. This geographical commentary on top of the original map is notable for having been written in English, rather than the Czech of the map’s labeling. This language difference can be attributed to the intended audience for the messages: the original map addressing Czech speaking locals, the additional commentary written to include non-Czech speakers.

It is also unique for having been drawn with South at the top (rather than the common Eurasian and land-centric North-up orientation2). This orientation corresponds to the physical position of the map as viewed from a passerby – the viewer faces generally south while reading the map and is therefore given a bird’s-eye view of the surroundings in that same direction.


I’ve since taken this instance of folk cartography and (to the best of my ability to guess at each place referenced) recorded its information as a series of points and areas in lat-lon space. This information was then plotted over map data from OpenStreetMap3 using the Leaflet4 Javascript library for web-browser embedded mapping (click the map image below for interactivity).



  1. Maps are an avenue to express our geographic understanding as an easily shared unit of geographic information. A different method of expressing geographic understanding is manifested through language. Space and meaning find their way into the place-names we assign to specific spaces as toponyms. (Germanic and Slavic language toponyms; English and Dutch etymologies)
  2. Joaquín Torres-García’s map of South America
  3. OpenStreeMap
  4. Leaflet JS

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