Dots. Lines. Crosses. Boxes. They have popped up all across Singapore over the past few weeks. Plastered over furniture, floors, and more, the city-state renowned for its cleanliness and order has become a maze of symbols, in order to defend its inhabitants from the COVID-19 pandemic.
This “mess” is indeed a series of messages. They tell citizens to stay apart from one another as the city battles to control the spread of the virus. Such makeshift signs started appearing right after the government introduced safe distancing measures on March 20, in order to limit the number of people gathering in a space and keep them at least 1-metre apart.
With just two-days notice before the measures turned into law, and no specific guide on how to implement them, local businesses and organizations quickly found their own solutions. While some printed custom signage to explain the measures, the most popular method has been to use adhesive tape to construct symbols, from crossing out seats to drawing queue lines and cordoning off areas.
At Mission Juice, a cold-pressed juice shop, business director Joel Lee turned to tape because it’s cheap (under S$2 for a roll), readily available, and durable for outdoor use. “People already get the 1-metre rule, so we do not need to print fancy stickers for this purpose,” says Lee. “Once the virus has eased and measures have been lifted, the tape can be easily removed, and vice versa, if it needs re-application.”
But Mission Juice has also gone beyond simply taping basic symbols to its chairs and floor. Outside its location, a hopscotch chart has appeared, because Lee had “nothing but time” with declining business. “Besides, it’s always good to ignite a little positivism, and take a lighter tone to bring some joy and fun into people’s day. Even in these dark and gloomy times,” adds Lee.
Such playful tape signs have captured the attention of many, and even given birth to several dedicated Instagram accounts in Singapore. Soon after measures kicked in, artist Berny Tan started tape_measures to crowdsource these “vernacular graphical interventions.” In just three weeks, she crowdsourced over 300 posts from the city-state that demonstrate how a no-frills linear material has been used to construct “an ephemeral version of hostile architecture to prevent the spread of COVID-19.” She has also attracted submissions from other countries, such as the United States, Germany, United Kingdom, Portugal, and the Netherlands.
“It’s an efficient way of communicating without using words,” says Tan. Based on her encounters and submissions, she estimates that 90% of the signs in Singapore use tape in some form. Many signs I spot day-to-day use red and yellow tape, and seem to borrow from a visual language commonly used to demarcate space and direct traffic in Singapore. Smoking points and zones for parking shared bicycles are typically marked out in yellow boxes on the street. The city’s roads also use double yellow lines and yellow boxes with crosses inside to indicate to motorists they cannot park or stop. Therefore most locals seem to understand the abstract symbols, although Tan was told that a foreigner was confused by “X” meaning where to stand rather than where not to stand.
She adds that while the tape signs follow a few basic principles, their extensive use amounts to something more. “It’s this new visual language that can be straightforward, or scary, or amusing, or even confusing, such that it almost feels like this surreal, city-wide, community-driven art project.”
In some instances, the functional signs have indeed become accidental art. At the shopping centre Star Vista, yellow boxes marked with a partial X transform a grey outdoor seating area into a supergraphic. (A mall representative said they opted not to use a full “X” as it looked too “severe and serious”). IKEA Singapore filled both their stores with between 350-450 yellow circles to create what would happen if Yayoi Kusama designed a polka dot installation that adheres by safe distancing.
The two examples also demonstrate how most applications of safe distancing measures fall between “reflecting consumer behaviours of a place and the brand guidelines,” says Melvin Tan, design director of Currency. While IKEA’s interior design team successfully extended its existing wayfinding, most other businesses have left the designing and implementing of tape wayfinding to their cleaners, security guards, and retail assistants. “I really enjoy these ‘undesigned’ ones… They employ amusing approaches in problem-solving and tape use,” says Tan.
One of his favorites is the grey benches marked with black crosses at Jurong Lake Gardens, which reminded him of American artist and designer Kaws’ signature “X X” motif. Another is a series of crosses made with a 14-year-old tape designed by WORK for the inaugural Singapore Biennale in 2006. In response to the sighting, the founder of WORK, Theseus Chan, replied: “Who’s been hoarding these lol!!!”.
As Singapore entered a month-long lockdown—officially called a “circuit breaker”—beginning April 7 to stem the spread of the virus, tape wayfinding has become even more visible and extreme. Playgrounds, fitness corners, and all other public facilities and spaces have been taped up. Other materials beyond standard adhesive tape are now also being used to guide citizens, including those traditionally used to mark boundaries, such as red-and-white or black-and-yellow tape, and even orange plastic fences.
“Ever since the circuit breaker kicked in, I’ve noticed that social distancing efforts have also levelled up,” says film producer Judith Tong, who founded @antisocialsocialdistancingsg to document the phenomenon. “Recently, one kopitiam (coffee shop) even brought out beer buckets and raffia string to attach them to seats.”
Tan of Tape_Measures agrees that these creative expressions have gotten more surreal. “And there’s a kind of excessive anxiety to this method that wasn’t present before now that it’s not just distancing but outright prevention of use.”
With the government urging all to stay indoors as much as possible, even resorting to fines for infringement, tape measures have even entered indoors. Singapore-based architecture photographer Finbarr Fallon created Circuit BreakAR, an augmented reality Instagram filter for anyone to wrap themselves with tape too.
“I think of these simple tape-based forms as a visual manifestation of how COVID-19 has transformed our relationship with our built environment. Any spaces of possible interaction have suddenly become spaces for possible infection,” he says. “By placing the ‘tape’ on each and every person, I also wanted to remind everyone of the importance of maintaining a healthy personal space between them and others—everyone should try their best to stay home and do proper social distancing!”