It’s either a symbol of romantic commitment, or it’s an act of vandalism. Those are basically the two opinions about “love locks”, which can be seen in profusion at many tourist destinations around the world.
They are padlocks, like you might have on a tool shed or gym locker, that have been embellished with the names or initials of couples in love. This can be done with nail polish or paint or a Sharpie. In some cases, the names and sentiment — “Cynthia and Mike Forever”, let’s say — are etched by laser.
The next step is for the couple to attach this chunk of sentimental hardware to a public fence or building or especially, a bridge. After looking meaningfully into each others’ eyes, they then fling the key into the river, signifying that their love is bonded together forever.
Love padlocks, as they are also known, seem to date back a hundred years or so, to a Serbian couple. He was a soldier about to be sent off to war; she was a young schoolteacher. OK, this isn’t going where you think it is — he fell in love with a Greek woman and never saw the schoolteacher again. The legend is that young Serbian girls put love padlocks on a particular bridge in hopes of avoiding a similar fate.
The practice wasn’t widespread in the 20th century, but got a huge boost in 2006 from a best-selling Italian novel called Ho Voglia Di Te (I Want You). In the book and subsequent movie, the main characters put a padlock on Ponte Milvio, a bridge over the Tiber in Rome.
Love locks became a craze in Italy: The Rialto Bridge in Venice sprouted them, and in Verona there are locks all over the house where Juliet supposedly lived when she was falling for Romeo. On the Ponte Milvio, a lamppost buckled under the weight of love locks.
Tourists spread the newly established tradition around the world, everywhere from Brisbane, Australia to Seoul, South Korea they are affixed to public property, mostly by visitors. Many locals take the dim view of love locks as being clutter, or worse — dangerous.
The Pont des Arts in Paris started to sag and has had grill work collapse regularly from 93 metric tons (over 205,000 pounds) of love locks. That bridge seems to be a favored spot for lovers, but throughout the city, bridges over the Seine have an estimated 700,000 padlocks attached. That’s the sort of thing that generates the conflict between keeping love alive and keeping infrastructure intact.
On New York’s Brooklyn Bridge, a key tossed by lovers might be just as likely to hit a car passing below as it would to reach the river (see photo), and locks add significant weight to the bridge’s cables. Workers from the city’s Department of Transportation periodically remove the locks with bolt cutters and recycle them. That approach has been taken in most other cities as well.
That means the symbolism of love locks has become nuanced: Clamping one on a bridge is now a way to say “I’ll love you till the end of time. Or until a city employee snips this with bolt cutters and throws it away. Whichever comes first.”