Have you ever really thought about roadlining? Have you ever wondered how the all-important markings on our streets even got there in the first place? This is an art form that’s hidden in plain sight, with master craftspeople responsible for the painting of lines, words, and symbols on our streets.
The short 2016 documentary Roadliners sheds light on this skill, weaving together slow-motion footage of roadliners in Glasgow, Scotland, and one of them, Thomas Lilley, even narrates. He reflects thoughtfully upon his art as scenes play out of men in neon workwear outfits dragging metal molds of smoking-hot white goo across the ground, leaving perfect white lines in their wake.
“Something that every single person is basically going to use is a road,” Lilley says in the short. “There’s a lot of pride involved in it as well; doing something that everybody’s going to use.” Lilley has been a roadliner in Glasgow for roughly 25 years, since he was 16. “I’ve never used tape. Never ever. Always just done it freehand,” he says with pride. “There’s no room for error. We can’t go back and just bin it or start again. It’s gotta be done first time right or not at all.”
It’s incredibly soothing to watch these roadliners deftly handle melted white thermoplastic that is so hot, a single drop on your skin would burn straight through to the bone. My newfound interest drew me to another British roadliner, Casey Picking, who posts process videos of his handiwork to over 160K followers on TikTok. His bio is simple: “Road marking, watch for satisfying videos.” And he’s not falsely advertising— each of his clips portrays the painting of a different word, phrase, or roadlining technique more captivating than the last.
It’s these more practically functional artforms that we come upon without fanfare in our day-to-day lives that get me thinking about what kinds of art we ascribe value to and what kinds we don’t. More blue-collar trades such as road marking aren’t heralded with the same kind of esteem as “fine arts,” but that doesn’t make them any less beautiful or impressive.
“Roadlining is art because you treat the road like a canvas,” Lilley says in Roadliners. “Because you’re doing something that’s going to be there forever.”