Japan’s Artful Manhole Covers

I feel I should start out with a small confession: The desktop picture on my Mac is of a manhole cover. Yup, a sewer lid. I took it when I first moved to my new city and really like the city’s seal engraved on it. I mention this because I just discovered that manhole cover artwork—and the photographing of these seemingly utilitarian devices—is a thing. This thing even has a name: drainspotting. And while I love my city’s cover designs, they pale in comparison to those in Japan.
Japanese municipalities have elevated such a low-lying item to a high-caliber work of art. The steel canvases are so ornate, it’ll put your town’s “Water and Power” insignia to shame. The variety of art is as different as the types of utilities the covers belong to, the cities, and the specific manufacturers. Covers often include symbols that relate to the city, or may feature local landmarks or native flowers and plants. In fact, trees, flowers, and animals seem to dominate many of the designs.
Drainspotting is apparently quite the hobby, enough to warrant the need for a Japanese Society of Manhole Covers, and even a coffee table book dedicated to the subject. Flickr user S. Morita has an entire album—with over 1,000 photos—showing off the beauty and artwork of Japan’s colorful covers. The time that must have gone into crafting each masterpiece is as amazing as the art is beautiful. I guess it just goes to show that art and beauty can be found anywhere. And also that it’s not so strange that I enjoy taking pictures of manhole covers!

Posted on: July 9, 2015

Erica Gamet

Erica Gamet has been involved in the graphics industry for an unbelievable 30 years! She is a speaker, writer, and trainer, focusing on Adobe InDesign and Illustrator, Apple Keynote and iBooks Author, and other print- and production-related topics. She is a regular presence at CreativePro Week’s PePcon and InDesign Conferences, and has spoken at ebookcraft in Canada and Making Design in Norway. You can find Erica’s online tutorials at CreativeLive and through her YouTube channel. When she isn’t at her computer, she can be found exploring her new homebase of Seattle and the greater Pacific Northwest.

4 Comments on Japan’s Artful Manhole Covers

  1. Hi yes I enjoy taking photos of interesting road covers in countries I travelled. Of course Japan has the most beautiful ones.

  2. These are beautiful, and that Flickr collection is astounding! I had come across a couple of these while researching some stock photography for a public-works-related project, but I had no idea the scope of Japan’s endeavor. Thank you for giving us this reminder to take a look around!

  3. Absolutely stunning! But please, Erica, tell us how they are produced. Most appear to be painted. Are they manufactured that way or are they painted on-the-spot? Some covers also appear to have dark metal areas that are embossed.

    • I would think (but I don’t know for sure) that they are forged and then painted. Especially when being created for an entire region or area, it would make sense to semi-mass produce them in that way. Maybe someone who has seen the actual covers could enlighten us.

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