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The World Mapped as Pop Art

Roy Lichtenstein meets cartography.

Washington, D.C., as if Roy Lichtenstein painted it himself. (Mapbox/katiekowalsky)

Katie Kowalsky hadn’t always known she wanted to be a cartographer. In fact, she started out as an economics major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but somewhere along the line, stumbled onto cartography. Doing so was the “best mistake” she ever made, she writes at her blog. Kowalsky goes on to explain why cartography was such a perfect fit for her:

I had always wanted something that was an amalgam of history, art, computer science, geography, and design.

Her Lichtenstein-esque world map is just that. Kowalsky, who now works at the University of Wisconsin Cartography Lab and co-organizes Maptime Madison!, read about the value of highly aesthetic maps in the Cartographic Perspectives journal while she was conducting research under cartography professor Rob Roth. Intrigued, and inspired by beautiful pop art-based maps created by geography students at Penn State, she created her own using Mapbox Studio.

She based it on the work of the iconic mid-20th century pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, whose art she admires. Lichtenstein is most well-known for his comic book-style paintings (often of women) with themes involving advertising and pop culture. Stark primary colors and thick black outlines are characteristic of his work.

Translating that style to a world map at 22 zoom levels came with some challenges for Kowalsky. Here’s how she describes the difficult process of using Lichtenstein’s primary colors in her map, via email:

It required a lot of thinking about how to incorporate a Lichtenstein color scheme at every zoom level without it being hard on the eyes. I used ‘Blue Nude’, ‘Crying Girl’ and ‘M-Maybe’ in particular. I had started the map and realized I dreadfully needed a green because having red or yellow is so severe, and blue has to serve as the water fill color. Luckily, 'Blue Nude' has that brilliant green vase so that was really helpful. His color scheme was a real limitation as I couldn't just use several shades of colors. I rarely used any opacity, which is a cartographer's trick in a lot of cases to make things stand more out. I had to use full, vibrant colors which was fun, but terrifying as a cartographer.

Here’s the map of London at three zoom levels, showing what the vivid colors and details of Kowalsky’s map:

The loud primary colors might be too much stimuli for some, but one thing they do is clearly highlight the difference in each city’s features. Check out how some of these cities around the world look in Kowalsky’s map, below:

New Delhi, India





About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra
    Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.