Secret Love Project – An Urban Artwork

secret love project cape town

If you’ve been moving around in Cape Town you might have noticed a certain symbol popping up everywhere: hearts. Solid little hearts. Everywhere! Street signs, windows, cars, electricity boxes, trees … all over Cape Town. When I first noticed them (in Roodehek street, leading to/from the City Bowl market), I got curious, so curious that I went on an intense googling spree to find a thing called The Secret Love Project:

The Secret Love Project is an urban artwork that uses the heart shape to spread love in the world. Inspired by the work of Derren Brown – a UK mentalist and hypnotist who has done experiments in public space using signs, symbols and language to orchestrate collective consciousness – the project was conceptualised and initiated by artist, Michael Elion. The Secret Love Project was spawned from the curiosity of how art, symbols and visual perception can influence our behaviour.

This idea, that a symbol can influence behaviours, slotted into the back of my mind, never far from my consciousness. I started feeling haunted by hearts, noticing them even more. Brighter, more conspicuous every time. I engaged others in conversations about it, asking them about the significance of this simple image to their lives. One friend got really passionate about his opinion – that this project is a waste of money, a waste of time. He tried hard to get me to agree, but I couldn’t. I was converted to the belief that the image of a heart (regardless of the history of how it came about) could have an effect which is mostly positive. As described by the project manager in answer to the question, “Could the image of the heart really change the world?”:

The heart shape is an unambiguous symbol of love across the world. It signifies a feeling, represents a mode of perception, and is aligned with positive emotional content. The Secret Love Project is a test to whether the pervasive application of this symbol will result in positive action. So far the proof is that it can and does.


The Secret Love people (still not sure why secret is part of the name though) then took it a step further: they invited members of the public to have the symbol tattooed on their bodies, marking themselves with (relatively) permanent love. I was hooked. Immediately. Despite being an over-thinker I had never wanted to think less about something. I was going to get this simple, yet oh-so-powerful image tattooed somewhere on my person. I sent a reservation email and by some random fluke I was enlisted as the first in line to be inked by Pirate Skin Tattoos during the official launch of the project at The Culture Gallery, in Woodstock.

Having been told it would be quick I decided to go alone. Empowerment, you see. Minutes before being told to sit down, a friend (the same one who was against the project at the start) tried to convince me via WhatsApp that this was a stupid idea (he being one of the few people who knew what I would be doing). Fuelled by annoyance with him I sat down in the make-shift parlour with strangers and photographers and a somewhat flustered Elion faffing about, not even stopping to think about the location of what would be a permanent mark on my skin (I only knew I wanted it to be visible, at least to myself).

To see to it that everything ran smoothly and on schedule they offered a limited variety of options: the size of the tattoo could be that of a R1, R2 or R5 coin and it could either be a simple outline, or filled in. I knew beforehand that I would take the outline, size R1. The assistant drew it in my selected spot, outer edge of my left wrist, but smudged the edge so he was told by the artist to redo it. This offered me enough time to get cold feet … or change something about what was about to become a part of my identity. “Wait,” I said and pointed to a new spot – this time on the inner edge of my left wrist. The man giggled nervously on my behalf, asking if this was my final answer as there would probably not be an opportunity to turn around again. I giggled nervously on my own behalf and said, “Let’s go.”


Within seconds they were done and I had a shiny, almost luminous, black outline of the same image that was scattered all over Cape Town inked on my wrist. As I looked at it, and received awkward pats on the back from people I would probably never meet again, I had a little oh-shit-what-have-I-done moment. But dankie tog, that moment was fleeting and the elation that kicked in right after was great. Euphoric even. The photos taken of me at that point reflect an honest joy and that special kind of peace that comes after doing something that was just right for you.

It’s odd, people’s reactions to this obscure decision I made. It’s also amusing to experience, and the tattoo provides a good tool for small talk. It’s also a great elicitor of puns! (Yes, I am wearing my heart on my sleeve). People like to ask me, “But, why?” I have at least seventeen reasons why I got a heart tattoo, the most important of which is, “Why not?”


If you would like to know more about the project (which is a registered World Design Capital initiative), or join the team on one of their #lovemissions (where they head out and besticker the city) follow their social media links:


Twitter: @secretlove

Facebook: SecretLoveProject2014

Instagram: secretloveproject

Thundafund: secretloveproject