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Research and experimental section

The Visual Habitus of a Traceur

Articulating Action and Media Practices within Parkour’s Visual Subculture
Javier Toscano


Following a visual ethnography, this article analyzes parkour’s visual subculture as a form of subcultural capital that has developed with the rise of this alternative sport. It describes a visual habitus and a set of media practices to understand the ways in which a collective gaze is signified and embodied. The text also identifies the parkour performer, or traceur, as a crucial element of an aesthetic system and a figure that articulates an underlying symbolic structure. The study delves into the forms in which traceurs develop a visual routine and build up a community of seeing, not only articulating it through a distinctive style, but also through the creation and dissemination of their own media material. In the end, the article seeks to reconstruct a visual habitus through the articulation of action and media practices within this alternative sport.

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This work was supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) under the grant for the project ‘Stile des Lebens 2.0 — Zur Genese und Struktur querläufiger Vergesellschaftung’.

I would like to thank the editor and the anonymous reviewers, as well as Felicia Hughes-Freeland and Matthias Sommer, whose comments contributed greatly to the improvement of this article.


1Parkour, a type of sport that blends acrobatic agility with a creative use of urban space, has become an important cultural activity in recent years. The prominence of this activity as a practice with a significant media component has received widespread recognition (Saville 2008; Ladewig 2008; Lauschke 2010; Archer 2010; Raymen 2019), yet hardly any research has been done on the specific symbolic forms and the vibrant visual subculture it generates, specially through the recent articulations with social media networks (some important contributions in Hietzge 2014 and Toscano 2020). This article focuses primarily on how the traceur –the parkour practitioner, also known as freerunner– comes into being; that is, how the central actor in parkour becomes an active figure who constantly acquires an arsenal of bodily skills, while developing an array of visual habits that heighten self-observation, learning, and procuring a sense of style, all supported through the multifaceted interconnections afforded by social media. By locating the traceur as the main figure of embodied practices and symbols across a dynamic media landscape, the article seeks to interpret parkour’s visual production and its underlying symbolic structure, enabling access to the intricacies of a complex visual subculture.

2The article investigates the idea of a visual subculture as a unique way of creating a visual approach to issues, subjects, and figurations that are significant to particular communities of practice. The traceur establishes her own space within the parkour community –a unique articulation between a livelihood and an ethos– by linking together particular perceptual and behavioral qualities that ultimately generates a form of subcultural capital (Bordieu 1991, Thornton 1995). As a first step, this research draws on earlier research on alternative sports and subcultures (Thornton 1997; Wilson and Carringon 2001; Wheaton and Beal 2003; Wheaton 2007, 2013; Woermann 2012), to examine how this visual subculture operates in parkour, mobilizing key categories and pinning down specific visual routines. This approach will also rely on theoretical insights to examine the quality of communal visual practices (Merleau-Ponty 1945/2005; Soeffner 1995; Knorr Cetina 2003, 2005; Raab 2008). The study will then analyze how the figure of the traceur is modeled after influences from popular and cult films, avant-garde art practices or other alternative subcultural gestures and routines. An empirical analysis of a set of images using Müller’s Figurative Hermeneutics (2012) will provide the material to develop this argument. In a third and last step, the traceur will be identified as the protagonist of a continuous struggle for authenticity, the embodiment of a philosophy that can be seen, in both media content and media practices, through the use of specific symbols, recognizable aesthetic attitudes and distinguishing features that create a particular style, i.e. that specific mood, form of expression and look that surround parkour's visual production.

Materials and Methods

3The methodology for this research drew on visual and participative ethnographic research in the sporting culture of parkour. It consisted of an analysis of media objects in parkour’s digital networks, and a series of in-depth interviews focusing on how and in what contexts participants engaged in the production and consumption of media materials. For this article I drew primarily on 12 in-depth interviews and several follow-up interactions conducted in Germany and Austria, specifically in Berlin, Chemnitz, Dresden, Erfurt, Leipzig, Offenburg, Regensburg and Vienna, over a two-year period (2017-2019). However, in the study of bodily practices it seems insufficient to rely on respondents' narrations of actions; since relations between what is said and what is experienced can be subject to different communicational biases and rendition gaps, it is advisable to observe and engage in practices personally. I therefore began my inquiry by starting training in parkour myself. I approached a group of traceurs and joined their training sessions, progressively immersing myself into the subculture, often sharing trips to sites and participating in jams with other groups. The observation was documented in field notes and photographs. Additionally, I started a collection of media objects (videos and images) produced by traceurs, as well as other materials posted, discussed and commented by the community. The function of subcultural media (parkour manifestos, images, and videos) was given particular attention. It was crucial that the analysis focused not only on the qualities of the content but that it also took into account how these were produced and consumed on and off the field (i.e., traceurs watching parkour videos and relating to their cultural output). The specifics of the media production process were further investigated in interviews with more media-savvy traceurs –those that do engage with media production on the field– in part by contrasting their unedited material with the content they eventually released online.

4Because of the research's regional focus, the findings reflect mostly the cultural distinctiveness of the groups examined. This extends also to gender accent. Despite all my efforts to include females among the interviewees (which ended up in a composition of 9 males and 3 females), parkour is dominated by male participants, and many of the attitudes and beliefs might reflect different forms of behavior typically associated with young men. Finally, the term ‘influencer’ refers to a wide range of parkour athletes who are prominent on a website, on a social media platform, or in a series of videos and even films, and who comment profusely and are commented on as well.

Parkour as a Visual Subculture

5Parkour comprises an extreme physical activity that is fittingly rendered into spectacular images and films. It naturally develops a visual subculture of its own. Visual subcultures have traditionally been thought of as ways to organize the production and consumption of media objects such as pictures, videos, magazines, and posters, and in that sense as cultural content with discernible aesthetic tastes and standards that can be systematically ranked, charted, and categorized (Thornton 1995; Wheaton 2000; Wheaton and Beal 2003). According to this framework, the specialized subcultural media plays a crucial role in distributing information about their activities to their members, as well as in the development and circulation of the symbols and meanings that are valued within the communities concerned. Nevertheless, contemporary social media cannot be understood simply as a transmission technology for a cultural output; it has become simultaneously a societal institution, a mode of coordination, and a site of experiences (Krotz 2009; Woermann 2012). In that sense, social media allows traceurs to deconstruct and reinterpret the meaning of a bodily performance through media practices, such as recording, viewing, editing, posting, and assessing visual recordings of particular events. Therefore, media practices do not serve merely as an archival reservoir to document a physical activity, but in fact help to shape the way parkour is practiced, and constitute an important moment in the activity as a whole. Inasmuch as they develop a reflective involvement in the community, media practices function in this sense as an articulated form of “scopic media” (Knorr Cetina 2003, 2005), that is, as “reflexive mechanisms of projection that aggregate, contextualize, and augment” visual content (Knorr Cetina and Grimpe 2008:164). It is through the interplay of projection, contextualization, and responsiveness that scopic media renders how a specific gaze or way of seeing emerges, which, as we will see, is not only valued, but also needed when practicing parkour.

6The visual habitus of the parkour community, which is an important element in what Jürgen Raab refers to as a "community of seeing" [Sehegemeinschaft] (2008), can only be reconstructed by comprehending it along the media production to understand how the gaze is organized within this activity, i.e. as a peculiar approach to modes of perceiving, experiencing, symbolizing, and intentioning the visual. Such habitual and shared aesthetic construct provides information about “conjunctive spaces of experience” (Mannheim 1982; Bohnsack 2009), i.e. indications about community visual practices, common viewpoints and shared motifs. Given that we are working within the visual domain, such an approach should also lead to an analysis of the social applications of visual artifacts, as well as on the routines and expectations embedded in the orders of seeing. For media objects encompass more than just coded gestures and aesthetic preferences; they also convey perceptual performances, variations on symbolic patterns, ethical criteria, ideological concerns, or even just highly valued communicational content. As such, these elements can be found to perform on the level of representation, turning the media into a sort of symptomatic layer related to a bodily-grounded visual habitus, and leading to different degrees of feedback between both.

7Most research on parkour’s visual subculture has been about the media content, the visual artifacts –videos, films and images– that shape the activity. Out of visual presentations that show recurrent appearances of symbols and visual practices, many times informed through the vocabulary of an anarchic imaginary, different analyses have argued that the traceur's visual perception is influenced by urban orderings and vice versa (Fuggle 2008:162; Lauschke 2010:85; Lamb 2014:16); that the community’s visual expressions reinterpret our perception of space (Archer 2010:95), or that visual symbolic forms contribute to the constitution of collective subjectivities (Toscano 2020). However, in order to deepen our understanding of “the shaping principles and construction forms on the aesthetical actions of the actors” (Raab 2008:167), there is still a need to articulate parkour’s visual output along the community’s media practices, that is, to understand the ways in which traceurs develop, consume, share, incorporate and perform visual routines to constitute their own visual habitus, and how this is turned into a central element in their media-based scopic system (Knorr Cetina 2003, 2005; Woermann 2012).

8To explain this, we analyze here two related phenomena that take place in the praxis, and which inform specific approaches to a characteristic visual organizing and media usage. On the one hand, I will examine what traceurs call ‘parkour vision’ (‘PK vision’), a method of visual performance that traceurs use to pre-imagine their own choreographic possibilities over a specific spatial scenario or an urban site, as well as one by which they relate to parkour media resources shared online. On the other hand, the understanding of parkour’s emergent gaze will be grounded on an analysis of parkour’s techno-visual production, specifically for self-representation purposes –and in that sense, including the examination of a distinctive style. This approach seeks to reveal what traceurs seek to articulate and express through their own media practices.

Parkour’s ‘PK Vision’

9Previous parkour studies have noted the ‘PK vision’ phenomenon (Saville 2008:901; Lauschke 2010; Kidder 2012:245-7; Kidder 2013:242; Merritt and Tharpe 2013:609). Similarly, analogous forms of visual performance have been analyzed for other alternative sports (e.g. Borden 2001; Gugutzer 2004:225; Woermann 2012). As a practice, PK vision includes projecting oneself out into the world to "test" what it can afford, learning from the recorded performances and their assessment, and connecting to the global parkour mediascape to observe or even imitate what others are doing or trying elsewhere. In short, it implies the reimagination of actual or virtual spaces through the possibility of the body traversing them. What has been less attended to is that this opening of new perspectives is taken, at least initially, as a break from the normalized social gaze, and has become as such part of the arsenal of resistance tactics associated with parkour.

10Parkour's very distinctive embodied active sensing can be explained by the habitual articulation of this split from the normalized gaze. Usually, since perception is governed by social rules of engagement, common interpretations lead to the emergence of a shared reality. As Merleau-Ponty writes, “To say that I have a visual field is to say that by reason of my position I have access to and an opening upon a system of beings, visible beings, that these are at the disposal of my gaze in virtue of a kind of primordial contract and through a gift of nature, with no effort made on my part.” (2005:251). Furthermore, supplementing the normalized or typical visual field by suggesting novel pairings, interactions, and experiences, PK vision reorganizes the body and its relations to its environment. The gaze shifts from that of a passive bystander or passerby to that of an urban explorer or experimenter at play. This follows Merleau-Ponty’s statement:

“Vision is already inhabited by a meaning (sens) which gives it a function in the spectacle of the world and in our existence. The pure quale would be given to us only if the world were a spectacle and one’s own body a mechanism with which some impartial mind made itself acquainted. Sense experience, on the other hand, invests the quality with vital value, grasping it first in its meaning for us, for that heavy mass which is our body, whence it comes about that it always involves a reference to the body” (2005: 60-61).

11Supplementing and even challenging the typical visual field, PK vision becomes then an embodied seeing, a reorganization of visual categories that modifies how spatial hierarchies are understood, as well as how objects are typically related to one another. The key in this case is the traceur's re-sensing and rewiring of his own body. By observing how other community members interact with the environment around them, PK vision is further strengthened, and also socialized. In my interactions with traceurs, I was frequently told to sense not only what was in front of me, but to try to connect it with my surroundings, in order to plan ahead three, four, five moves in a row, before my body was even traversing the space.

12Another form for traceurs to connect the spatial points and pre-figure a state of flow is to look at what others have achieved in their own spaces with minimal elements. In that sense, media objects play a crucial role in the transmission of experience and in the creation of a community of seeing. Studies in other visual subcultures have reported similar phenomena. Writing about skaters, Borden states: “[e]very time skaters make moves they are at once replaying photographs and video clips through their bodies, reliving and reinventing them, and ultimately rendering images, moves and themselves into social, fleshy, living entities.” (2001:125). For parkour, similar experiences have been recorded. One traceur states in a video: “There are the ones who deal with it all the time, they have a video in their head and play it constantly, back and forth, and see where can they still change things.” (Bretsch 2011, 1:32-1:42). A traceur who I was talking to after he assisted to a parkour jam –a gathering where different teams and traceurs connect and practice together for several days– said: “For our last big jam, there was also a video afterwards, where I simply tried to process the impressions, and I wouldn't have thought earlier either, but that's why I came to parkour in the first place; I said: ‘I saw that, that's great, I want to do it myself.’ [It] definitely has an influence on me” (personal communication, October 18, 2018). In the end, this creates a media community —an informal network where videos are shared, traded, or just watched collectively. As yet another traceur states: “There’s a special sort of friendship, a comradery that comes out of peeking in general […] You grow a special appreciation of other traceur’s watching each other’s videos, we form a special relationship, like we had a good conversation, only we’re speaking on the language of parkour.” (TK17 2009, 29:55-30:36).

13The creation of media materials is therefore not primarily focused on turning parkour into a ‘spectacle’ —despite the fact that this partially occurs and stirs some tensions within the community (see Toscano 2020)— but rather on creating a wide range of cultural tools and objects, such as training aids, souvenirs and reminders of a personal quest, which carry the community's values and serve as points of contact and exchange. Thus, parkour media artifacts serve as relational objects that allow traceurs to observe everyday life, identify atypical urban situations, appreciate possible routines, and comprehend bodily potentials. In the end, they aid in orienting attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs. As Merleau-Ponty states:

The gaze gets more or less from things according to the way in which it questions them, ranges over or dwells on them. To learn to see […] it is to acquire a certain style of seeing, a new use of one’s own body: it is to enrich and recast the body image. Whether a system of motor or perceptual powers, our body is not an object for an ‘I think’, it is a grouping of lived-through meanings which moves towards its equilibrium. Sometimes a new cluster of meanings is formed; our former movements are integrated into a fresh motor entity, the first visual data into a fresh sensory entity, our natural powers suddenly come together in a richer meaning (2005: 177).

14Since a wide array of meanings is crafted into parkour’s visual habitus, it is essential to recognize the significance of its related videos and photographs in order to comprehend this sport as a visual subculture. Its visual production functions not only as content but also as a practice with its own rules and structure. Parkour's media products are a result of a specific retraining of the gaze, in which objects and people take on new meanings, but they also support aesthetic preferences, symbolic uses, and visual priorities. And even if parkour's active gaze encourages a break from the normalized social gaze that traceurs seek to escape, this breach does not result in a disorganized visual representation or in a persistent and definitive rupture. Instead, it settles into a fresh pattern of perception. In this way, PK vision adheres to predetermined rules that are then simply converted into media artifacts. The parkour community is able to recognize and decode the symbolic elements that are used to channel these visual characteristics through various aesthetic patterns. In other words, practicing parkour implies learning to read what others have achieved in their own settings, by differentiating the tricks one at a time, and looking at how they are re-combined and assembled. That is where its visual symbolism derives its specific effectiveness, as a form of communal cohesion.

15To examine how PK vision is further articulated through a set of visual representations, I now discuss a collection of images sorted during the research process, and further arranged through interactions with traceurs. This will elucidate how the athletic practice of parkour and the consumption and production of social media have converged to form a nexus of action and media practices.

Making Sense of Parkour’s Visual Production

16In order to link the process of PK vision as an embodied visual practice with the ways in which parkour media practices give way to a peculiar media output, with its own symbolic meanings and uses, I will proceed to make an analysis of a set of parkour images. For this analysis, I created an extensive data collection of pictures from individual traceurs and parkour teams. I discussed the selection with traceurs, relating them to other historical and relevant images that could be seen as guiding their interpretation, and I supported the choices with articles, manifestos and mentions on social media. In any case, the images here depicted do not aim to reconstruct the experience of practicing parkour in any form. In fact, the community acknowledges that media representations differ drastically from the original experience. In other words, traceurs distinguish very well between images destined for social media consumption and the actual feel of the body while practicing. In my own experience, it would have never occurred to me to film myself, for that would beanother activity to focus on other than the physical practice, which is already a challenge for beginners and intermediates; I only watched advanced traceurs film themselves at specific times, when they assigned time and effort to set up a move that could be recorded, sometimes to repeat it for themselves with the aim of improving it, but mostly to post to their social media accounts.

17Consequently, the media that traceurs produce do not aim to document or revive the concrete experience as closely as possible. That is why point-of-view (POV) shots or footage produced with personal GoPro-type cameras are not the dominant material. Rather, what matters is the production of a styled self, to be disseminated through different digital networks. As other studies on social media have shown, “social media profiles are created and updated with great care because they serve as a digital placeholder of the actual self, a virtual address of the real person rather than an arbitrary avatar in a separated virtual space” (Woermann 2012:627). Style in parkour is therefore an element in which the communal habitus of seeing converges. It is a code to be perceived and transmitted, and will be a common thread across the selection.

18Methodologically, this analysis follows the guidelines developed by Müller in his Figurative Hermeneutics (2012), which are influenced closely by Goffman's pictorial pattern analysis in Gender Advertisements (1987). Explicitly, parallel projections are here built in order to compare images from different semantic fields. Comparisons here do not aim to establish a mere likelihood, similarity or familiarity; they derive a cognitive potential because they can show differential issuances across related themes. According to Goffman, “[d]ifferent pictorial examples of a single theme bring different contextual backgrounds into the same array, highlighting untold disparities even while exhibiting the same design. It is the depth and breadth of these contextual differences which somehow provide a sense of structure, a sense of a single organization underlying mere surface differences […]” (1987:25). Or as Müller writes, “[i]nterpretative image comparisons in the understanding negotiated […] aim at a reconstruction of creative selections of meaning and the social topics, relevances and communication practices flowing into them” (2012:143).

19Therefore, contrasting the images here compels us, both to discover emotional connections that might not be clear from the presentation of a single image, and to understand how specific compositions, gestures, details or assemblages yield a particular effect or reception. That is, image contrasting allows typification to arise. It also shows how specific types are implemented, searching to produce a peculiar emotional effect. Ultimately it is not the comparative description of images that is at stake, but the emergence of relations and a specific worldview through the emotional component of visual materials.

20Following this comparative method, I now present a set of parallel projections as brief case studies. Parkour-related images stand always at the centre. The interpretative remarks summarize key points of discussions and are presented in an abridged form.

Figure1. Parallel projection I

Figure1. Parallel projection I

From left to right: Jumping monkey (image reversed for comparison); Daniel llabaca, traceur; Jackie Chan, actor (from the film Rumble in the Bronx).

Photos by Fry 2015;; Tong 1995. Images with kind permission of the copyright owners.

  • 1 The traceur/influencer Daniel Ilabaca is used in the central image for comparisons. He was mentione (...)

21Case 11. From its origins, but more notably during the last years, parkour has been shaped and influenced by different media, including films that have acquired a status as cult objects, mainly action movies portraying martial arts (Archer 2010:100; London Real 2012), but also, interestingly, documentaries about animals (Wilkinson 2007, 16). These themes appear clearly in Figure 1. The traceur represents himself not only as an action hero, but also as an athlete discovering his natural abilities, and using them to traverse a void from the heights. Nevertheless, the staging of this image can be immediately detected by other traceurs, who can see the jump was made for someone else to see it, for it leaves no clear traces of the edges from which the jump takes place (i.e. context). As I noted previously, traceurs typically represent themselves online in a carefully elaborated way, in a digital aestheticization of the self. We can further call this crafted image a persona, to avoid describing an individual per se, and refer instead to the traceur as a mediatized, recognizable figure with a characteristic style. According to Müller, “In the process of socialization, the social being of the individual is formed. […] My ‘I’ is that which will never coincide with its own image.” (2009:38-39). Müller also notes that a persona is that which through “mimicry and corporal attitudes becomes the object of observable –and therefore a controlled visual self-perception– through reflections, photos and videos.” (2012:137). The character created and expressed by the parkour visual habitus, through key mediatized and interactive elements, is the traceur as persona.

22In many ways, a desire to express a unique style lies at the core of the traceur’s fascination with media practices. To mobilize a persona within parkour is to demonstrate one's own approach to doing a specific trick, to design one's own media profile, or to create a distinctive appearance with light, easy-to-wear clothing. This empirical evidence of a representational status-inducing media production is consistent with prior studies on socialization in sport subculture that show an interplay of identity construction and identity formation (Wheaton 2000, 2003; Beal and Wilson 2004). Mediatized forms of identity performance and status structuring through self-styling belong to the current parkour practices, even in training scenarios, and they often merge into semiprofessional actions of self-promotion (see Nelson 2010; Thorpe 2008). Moreover, according to the traceurs I met, the sort of representation present in Figure 1 has become a common type of its own in parkour’s social networks due to the spectacular effect this produces, even if it remains far from the reality in the field.

Figure 2. Parallel projection II

Figure 2. Parallel projection II

From left to right: Yves Klein, Leap into the Void; Storror team (image reversed for comparison); Peter Pan (detail).

Photos by Harry Shunk and Janos Kender (montage by Klein 1960); Storror team, Instagram account; Disney 1953, public domain. Images with kind permission of the copyright owners.

23Case 22. The middle photograph in Figure 2 presents an unusual take of a traceur from the top of a roof, portraying him as a fearless spirit. This is only the first still of a video, but it is an opportunity to contrast it with both a breath-taking leap (a stunt) by Yves Klein3, an avant-garde artist from the 1960s who worked in the ‘heroic’ time that contributed to the dematerialization of the artwork (Lippard 1997). The image of the artist as a disruptor —we need only think of a Dadaist or a Situationist artist— is inherent to the modernist art project. As Helguera writes: “It is hard to imagine how the avant-garde would have even taken place without artists pushing the boundaries of the status quo and performing daring acts that would change thinking around art. This daring attitude used to go much further than a simple intellectual or aesthetic gesture. In its revolutionary spirit, it could be thoughtful and poetic, but it could also be aggressive, often violent, and many times operative —a combination of a performative gesture that can immediately capture the public attention” (2021). In many ways, this appetite for challenging conventions is also present in parkour influencers, who concoct for them an image of an avant-garde, yet ethical athlete, which can be associated to a common formula they share: “be strong to be useful”.

24On the other hand, the central image can be formally linked to the fantastic figure of Peter Pan to the right, a boy who never wants to grow up, living in Neverland, a place where he can stay young forever. As a matter of fact, Peter Pan’s figure can be easily associated with a fresh attitude towards the world to which many traceurs refer when speaking about the constitution of their own perceptual routine. As a traceur told me: “[There is] in parkour actually a little, not childish approach, but a child-like approach. So the view of the world turns… more rebellish, I think. To say: ‘why is that so?’ ‘Why should it be like that?’ And ‘why is the wall not there to be skipped over, but as a demarcation?’” (Personal communication October 17, 2018). The image set presented in Figure 2 reflects in a singular form the type of a ‘jump into the abyss’. Some traits associated with this type (‘audacious’, ‘indomitable’, ‘reckless’, ‘dangerous’) fill up descriptions of the sport in many lifestyle magazines and websites (e.g. Smith 2017; MTV 1882 Parkour), but these assessments come less out of interactions with participants than from thematic associations, such as this one.

Figure 3. Parallel projection III

Figure 3. Parallel projection III

From left to right: New Kids on the Block, ‘Games’ album cover, 1990; Storror team; 67 rap group.

Photos by NYOTB 1990; Storror team, Instagram account; Dymoke 2017. Images with kind permission of the copyright owners.

25Case 3. Traceurs are not fashion-seekers as such, but as we have seen, they tend to have a recognizable style of their own. As Raymen writes, a parkour “’look’ would get confused with a ‘gang’ look: baggy jogging bottoms with loose t-shirts, vests and heavy hoodies with graffiti font styles on the front” (2019:2). It can even be said that style plays an important role as the key articulator between a public athlete (offline) and the performance of a digital self (online). In Figure 3, a parkour group is contrasted with two music groups: the boy-band New Kids on the Block from the American pop culture in the early 90s, which sought to appropriate a street look, and the contemporary rap band 67, from London. In all three cases, members of the groups are keenly aware of how style is implied for a successful development of their activities (see Clinton 2015; Dymoke 2017). Specific traits, tags and descriptions develop out of these gang-like references too (such as calling themselves ´tough guy´, ´badass´, ´brotherhood´ and the like), and they are acted out in the portraits as collective gestures, such as appearing in complementary positions and heights, standing with legs wider than usual, crossing the arms, bowing slightly to the front, using caps and black outfits, etc.

26As this comparison shows, dress and clothing are important components of a style. And even if a traceur seems to set himself away from fashion trends, there is a very conscious choice of outfit performing on a perceptual level. Practicing parkour requires no special accessories, except wearing any kind of comfortable sport apparel. Traceurs reinforce this fact often by stating that their own bodies are their own performing tools, and that they should look after them with special care. This is later extended as a stress on minimalism and simplicity that resounds on the ethos of the community. It could be even said that, as an emic category, the parkour style is to set a non-style, even a no-logo statement (Klein 1999) that rejects consumerism, fashion and individual distinction. In different moments, traceurs recall that the most consequent influencers may even resemble Zen monks. However, the baggy jogging bottoms and the clearly inexpensive sport shoes do make up a pattern of their own, and highlight some crucial details of this attitude, as a coded visual system that is noticeable in the community. For example, the functional apparel was not designed specifically for parkour when the sport first leaped into the scene. But traceurs enjoy particularly the détournement — a sort of rerouting or hijacking associated with the French Situationists — they make on older clothing and out-styled sport outfit. This repurposing at the level of clothing is what they expect to achieve at the perceptual level with the performance of PK vision, and from there at different levels of subjective formation.

27And yet, certain parkour influencers frequently create graphic identification elements, and many organizations and teams design their own logos, banners, or even brand-like signatures. This suggests that, over the past few years, a change in approach for this particular topic has occurred within the community. The commercialization of sportswear was originally publicly opposed by traceurs (e.g. Tapp 2014; Paul 2017), however, in more recent times, teams and groups have actively started to market their highly-styled clothing and footwear lines, partially converting parkour into a lucrative pastime. This modification fits the pattern of professionalization associated with other subcultures (Atkinson 2009:173). In semi-professional and professional sports worlds, visual distinctions and branded attire are commonplace (Gladden and Funk 2002). These items suggest a revenue stream for parkour teams and groups at the current state of development. However, recognizable brands and products consisting of visual branding are a stylized activity that appears to be at odds with a particular ethos that is openly critical of social consumerism (e.g. Atkinson 2009:177; Daskalaki et al. 2008:62).

28A different approach, however, shows that this commercial pursuit is a supplement to the subculture rather than a contradiction within it. Traceurs have accepted the idea that the things they create —their visual subcultural capital— have a monetary worth that, if mobilized, enables them to continue playing the game while making a living. I have never heard an overt criticism of this attitude during this research. The most enthusiastic traceurs were attempting to sustain their own practice by offering training sessions, subscriptions to sport teams, and access to special events, recruiting thus additional participants, particularly females and young people. In the end, this must be taken into consideration in order to comprehend the sport as a subcultural movement that offers alternate perspectives to particular social behaviors and customs, rather than constituting itself as an outright oppositional political activity. In this sense, the sport cannot be regarded as an antagonizing political practice that would aim to change a particular social reality on its own. Parkour, however, encourages its practitioners to improve the self via physical vigor and awareness, perceptual training and self-discipline, and in this way it attempts to contribute to "a reformation of collective habituses", as Atkinson and Young contend (2008:60). Traceurs deliberately highlight the constrained layout of urban settings and consider solutions to get around them. They accomplish this through symbolic actions and procedures that aim to change the unwritten laws established in a given territory. In this regard, if parkour offers a ‘resistance’, it is more of a change in the ‘rules of the game’ than a direct challenge towards authority (Bavinton 2007:394; Atkinson 2009:185-6). This interpretation of parkour recognizes the complexities, inconsistencies, fluidities, and even shifting moral attitudes of various subcultures as they are assimilated into traditional capitalist activities (Gillespie 1995; Thornton 1995; Muggleton 2000; Brick 2001; Diani 2004), while also being aware of the very symbolic nature of this particular sport. Athoughhis might seem to imply a more subdued kind of resistance, it is precisely these features what have turned parkour into an increasingly appealing alternative sport in recent years —one that is both discipline-forming and family-friendly— endowed with a rich and complex visual subcultural capital.

29The parallel projections in this section have aimed at showing how parkour’s aesthetic and stylized practitioners are part of a constellation of themes and visual tropes that surround the sport. For synthetic purposes, it has been easier to show this effect using photographic stills, but parkour’s subcultural capital is full of videos and films where movement and sound play central roles. Nonetheless, the analytical objective has been, on the one hand, to highlight how apparently unrelated visual materials can combine in non-linguistic interpretations that interact through their emotional, symbolic power. And on the other, the contrast has sought to show how the stylized traceur stands at the center of an aesthetic system that is full of visual referents, which are made evident through parkour’s characteristic perceptual routines, laying thus bare the active nexus of action and media practices that operates within this specific subculture.

The Traceur as a Symbolic Figure: the Confluence of Habitus and Style

30Even if unwillingly, parkour is a carefully styled form of sport. In a very straightforward way, style can be defined as “a distinctive characteristic or way of expression” (Sklar et al. 2021:718). Style is therefore associated with expression of the self, communication of beliefs, visualization of identity choices and even representations of a particular ethos, as a mode of behaving. As Soeffner writes: “Style as a specific presentation identifies and manifests the belonging of an individual not only to a group or community, but also to a particular habitus and way of life to which these groups or communities are committed. A style is part of a comprehensive system of signs, symbols and references for social orientation” (1995:78). Styling thus implies an aesthetic manoeuver through which specific ideologies (as sets of ideas) and beliefs materialize. In that sense, it can be further understood as a non-linguistic structure with a specific meaning-making mechanism, or procedures of intercultural encoding. As such, it is hardly surprising that parkour’s visual habitus, and within that the articulation of its media practices, converge in the traceur as a highly styled or cultivated persona.

31Part of the mobilization of affects of a styled traceur is the awareness of the connection between physical activity and posture, bodily movement and spiritual life, mental discipline and affinity for challenging social norms. The visual habitus that is constructed within the sport emerges as a configuration of these elements and is transposed into both media objects and field practices depicting a particular style. Style is here both a process and a continuous reflection that links a material practice with an immaterial becoming. Unsurprisingly, styling allows for a visual habitus to get shaped, to be informed and tested, passed down to the community, through details that are factual but frequently barely perceived by outsiders unfamiliar with the code to interpret it. But as has been discussed, traceurs are not styled in an extravagant or profuse manner, they are laid-back and ‘cool’, relaxed, easygoing, and poised. They tend to avoid risks and move cautiously, as if mindfulness and prudence were embodied in their action, and this has been accurately assessed (see Lauschke 2010:58; Kidder 2013:241ff; or the traceur Urban Amadei in Weiland 2017). In that sense, through the traceur’s styling, one can say that parkour’s ethos is always at work, shaping the traceur’s public persona.

32Even though the concept of style best describes the embodied aesthetic qualities assigned to individuals as these are crafted into different planes of presentation/representation that build up a persona, parkour’s stylistic features are minimalistic. Consequently, what viewers recognize most prominently are styled traceurs who appear in media artifacts in various interactions and locations, relating to a variety of individuals and objects. In that sense, the traceur becomes a significant figure himself, an embodied sign. When we see these figures in films and pictures, we are witnessing an aesthetic system in action, where each component is related to the others in a particular arrangement. The traceur turns into the focal point of a visual universe. The underlying visual associations and patterns can then be identified and deciphered, according to unspoken sets of visual ‘rules’ that embody parkour's perceptual routine, but also out of direct comparisons with other readily available (and valued) media materials ––videos from the scene but also cult action films, video games, or other visual influences that are significant and contribute a subcultural capital. Within this informal visual archive, other members of the community can determine whether a specific media object (and the traceur performing in them) is challenging or relevant.

33In this sense, parkour’s visual symbolic potential is enabled by the combination of a style as a means through which traceurs have discovered ways to embody a differential and critical perceptual routine based on communal ways of seeing, as well as on modes of self-presentation that promote belonging and, ultimately, give a cohesion to parkour's specific visual subculture.

Concluding remarks

34This article has aimed to examine how the visual subculture of parkour develops out of a particular collective visual habitus, which is the result of a specific perceptual routine, and structures thus a certain way of seeing. A community of seeing, together with a set of formal applications within a culture of visual media, is created through this process. The analysis of this development has focused on analyzing how a subcultural gaze is organized, evolving into a second order or critical vision that aspires to systematize the communities' visual tropes and motifs.

35By setting up a visual participative ethnography, I was able to involve myself not only by associating categories and sorting out the relevance of different testimonies, but using my own body as an instrument in the field. Although my own abilities were not the object of the inquiry, this raised my understanding of the complexity of the training process and its focus on developing a visual awareness, which is later organized as a scopic system. This also helped me to recognize the distinction between field performance and media representations, which were a recurrent motif in the interviews. Finally, it guided my understanding of PK vision as an elaborate expression of parkour's perceptual routines, as this performs a unique visual organization, one that results in a creative instigation of a visual world. After recognizing the significance of an embodied form of PK vision, I was able to locate it as a grounding of a particular visual production that articulates a substantial visual subcultural capital, where videos, films and images become important pieces that mobilize the community’s visual habitus. In parkour, the centrality of vision is radical, which contributes to the sense of spectacularity that surrounds parkour representations.

36Finally, with a visual analysis shows how the different components create an aesthetic system in which the recognition of a style emphasizes symbolic articulations and mobilizes relevant visual connections, determining the meanings of the representations produced. In this sense, traceurs use different aesthetic strategies to refer to their represented personas, using style as a conveyor of visual motifs and emotional elements as triggers to signify non-linguistic elements, community values and ethical quests.

37This enquiry has focused on the phenomenological substrate that connects perception to an embodied and shared visual experience. Of course, further research can explore the multisensorial scope of parkour as a practice, and how that deepens indeed the gap between representations and actual performances. In this study, a traceur's visual performances can be seen to both apply and expand a collective visual repertoire —a well-trained and highly complex embodied gaze that is continuously reorganized along with the environment, in routines that coordinate action and media practices, and reveal thus the structure of a specific visual habitus.

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1 The traceur/influencer Daniel Ilabaca is used in the central image for comparisons. He was mentioned by different interviewees, and has accounts all across the relevant social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube), with up to 55,000 followers (Instagram March 2021).

2 Cases 2 and 3 are constructed with material from the team Storror, also mentioned frequently in conversations, with presence in the relevant social media and 930,000 followers in Instagram (March 2021).

3 See; Artlead n.d.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure1. Parallel projection I
Caption From left to right: Jumping monkey (image reversed for comparison); Daniel llabaca, traceur; Jackie Chan, actor (from the film Rumble in the Bronx).
Credits Photos by Fry 2015;; Tong 1995. Images with kind permission of the copyright owners.
File image/jpeg, 80k
Title Figure 2. Parallel projection II
Caption From left to right: Yves Klein, Leap into the Void; Storror team (image reversed for comparison); Peter Pan (detail).
Credits Photos by Harry Shunk and Janos Kender (montage by Klein 1960); Storror team, Instagram account; Disney 1953, public domain. Images with kind permission of the copyright owners.
File image/jpeg, 301k
Title Figure 3. Parallel projection III
Caption From left to right: New Kids on the Block, ‘Games’ album cover, 1990; Storror team; 67 rap group.
File image/jpeg, 210k
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Electronic reference

Javier Toscano, The Visual Habitus of a TraceurAnthrovision [Online], 9.2 | 2021, Online since 30 June 2023, connection on 04 March 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Javier Toscano

APRA Foundation Berlin

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The text and other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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