Environmental Graphics

The Art of Manhole Covers

Most municipalities around the world view sewage manhole covers as a mundane part of the urban infrastructure. At best, they try to make these heavy metal plates functional and inconspicuous. Instead, cities and towns focus their civic beautification efforts on creating a broad range of public art installations — murals, sculptures, archways, fountains, and the like. But ignoring the artistic possibilities of humble manhole covers is a missed opportunity. These metal plates, typically 34 inches in diameter, are the perfect size for casting images and decorative patterns that relate the culture, history, industry, and flora and fauna of the area.

Although decorative manhole covers can be found here and there in the U.S. and Europe, nowhere are they more prevalent than in Japan, where 95 percent of all cities and town have aesthetically designed manhole covers.There are now more than 12,000 manhole cover designs throughout the country, with new ones being added every day. Japan first adopted the program to make eye-catching manhole covers after World War II as a move to publicize the importance of the country’s new sewer system project. In Japan, manhole covers have become their own art form, and enthusiasts, who call themselves “manholers,” have made manhole sightseeing into a tourist attraction. Hundreds of fans flock to the Annual Manhole Summit in Tokyo, where they can pick up the newest manhole design cards and engage in passionate discussions about their favorite manhole. Recently the group celebrated the high honor of having this unique art form recognized on the cover of the Journal of Sewage.