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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Mouton August 15, 2022

Young parkour traceurs in Mexico City: a new way to meaning and identity in urban spaces

  • Ivan Islas EMAIL logo and Sergio Varela
From the journal Semiotica


The practice of parkour in urban spaces by young people, especially those who call themselves traceurs (“plotters”), illustrates how identities are formed in an ephemeral way by reinterpreting spaces in the city – briefly and without leaving a trace. However, in a sort of paradox, these interventions are registered in the socio-digital spectrum, tokenistically anchoring and incorporating them into conversations and social interactions. This work aims to explain the practice of the sport called parkour as a socio-semiotic phenomenon. We have used some zones of Mexico City as a specific case for our approach. The foregoing leads to the conclusion that the meaning of parkour goes beyond its recreational role and places it as a relevant piece of identity for excluded urban social groups – even though these practices have been appropriated by marketing strategies. Our approach will use a cultural semiotics perspective, as well as direct observations and interviews as research techniques.

This article does not pretend to be an exhaustive proposal but rather aims to raise some problems, put some semiotic issues on the table, and illustrate them through the contemporary cultural practice of parkour, a sports activity not yet fully institutionalized that, as will be seen latter, can be describe as a kind of body training discipline that looks forward to go from one point to another in an efficient way. The body training consists of performing different kind of jumps, climbing and other acrobatics while running or walking from the first to the second point, the traces, as in painting. This sport activity takes place mainly in urban areas that are resignified by the traceurs as parkour athletes call themselves. The article’s description of parkour forms a semiotic perspective which is supported and illustrated by direct observations of how these cultural practices occur and how they are carried out in an area of Mexico City.

This work is divided into two parts: the first offers a series of conceptual references that shed light on the semiotic phenomena behind the practice of parkour, such as the double character of behaviors and objects, ephemeral symbolic practices, as well as ludic and dialogical features of objects of parkour culture, among others. The second part is a characterization and description of some examples of parkour in Mexico City that could confirm aspects previously described; in particular, those focused on the construction of identity, often linked to masculinity, and its relationship with the practice of parkour. Methodological aspects that were used for the analysis and observation are also mentioned in this section.

1 Giving meaning to objects and practices: a general premise

Giving meaning to our actions and the things we produce is typical of humans. From the semiotic point of view, “making sense” is linked to making practices and objects acquire a double character, so that human acts have a double life, a kind of dual dimension, as explained by Lotman in his multiple reflections on the phenomena of art and culture (Lotman 2000). On the other hand, and from the point of view of Peircean semiotic theory, giving meaning as a condition of being human is related to the idea that humankind inevitably lives anchored to symbolism; in Peirce’s vocabulary, humankind is immersed in thirdness (Cobley 2001: 30–31; Nöth 1995: 41; Peirce 1974: 86). Symbolism, or in other words, the symbolic character of humankind, is what allows people to transit to the world of culture, so it could be said that it is a matter that is inevitably linked to humankind’s condition. From the perspective of hermeneutical philosophy, Gadamer alludes to the language-thought relationship, arguing that our symbolic faculty, from our direct relationship with things, separates us from the rest of mammals and enables us to go into the world of concepts, making cultural life possible (1994: 145). More precisely, giving meaning to actions and to the environment has allowed humans to transcend the immediate and instinctive state, that is, it has enabled us to evoke and at the same time to project. All actions that humans undertake and everything that surrounds us acquire a symbolic dimension under our gaze. On the other hand, this capacity of language and its symbolic competence has implied the insertion of individuals in the territory of communication, considered in the broadest sense. Communication is crucial for social interaction and its cultural development, as mentioned by multiple authors, including Gadamer (1994) and, from a philosophical anthropology perspective, Cassirer (1976). The possibility of communicating is the most eloquent sign of the symbolic capacity of humans, which is language.

1.1 The value of cultural practices

The premise of communication as a product of the faculty of symbolizing, as is well known among language scholars and particularly among semioticians, allows us to affirm that the different practices developed by social groups acquire a value beyond their immediacy. Although many of our acts are inscribed in direct behaviors, such as, for example, a person that falls asleep because their body needs rest, there are also indirect activities that have a symbolic purpose.

The world of culture, in a broader sense and from a semiotic perspective, encompasses all human activity (Eco 2000: 51; Lotman 2000: 58, 168). The established configuration, that is, the prevailing communication systems, informs the general types of activities we carry out and, in some sense, also classifies them. For example, we carry out a range of activities including ludic or recreational, political, work-related, altruistic and social, and at the same time, we assume roles since the different activities also place us in these classifications. However, such a demarcation, which is rather conventional, is not always so sharp in some of the activities, so its features are rather hybrid. Additionally, semiotic dynamism is always present in the cultural world, concreted in our individual or group acts, and can intermingle the different functions, so it is not surprising to locate some ludic or enjoyable acts that may also have other functions, like politics, as we will illustrate with the case of parkour (a practice that involves carrying out forms with the body in already existing architectural spaces).

1.2 Ephemeral symbolic acts

Non-permanent symbolic acts could be explained from the pragmatic level of significance. Explicitly, Morris (2000) has spoken of this level when referring to the use of signs as one of the dimensions of the semiosis process. Morris (2000) alluded to the situations that occur around a sign process and the behavioral and interpretive implications that involve the subjects, whether they are readers, listeners, or users; Eco (2000), for his part, raised the idea of function-sign to indicate its malleable nature. Thus, Eco (2000: 84) alludes to the sign as the one that triggers a relationship and that somehow becomes concrete; although the sign is not fixed in the function that is socially entrusted to it. In Saussure (2003: 93), from his linguistic reflection, we also find something similar when he alluded to the arbitrariness and mutability of the sign: signified-signifier (concept-sound image) relationship is not necessary; it can change if the convention behind it is modified.

The ephemeral, therefore, from a semiotic point of view, is an idea that arises naturally if one starts from the argument that signs provoke signified processes and that they occur in different circumstances under pragmatic rules. Signs are not definitive; they are sign functions that are being activated and deactivated and that involve constant transformations. This seems obvious among semioticians, but it is an essential premise when referring to the different uses that objects of the culture can have and, in particular, architectural objects, as illustrated in the use of urban space by parkour practitioners, which we will allude to in detail from the perspective of Lotman (2000: 103–112) who has extensively reflected on the architectural object in the context of culture.

1.3 Extreme sports in contemporary societies and masculinity

The social reconfiguration, which has been variously named postmodernity, globalization, late capitalism or neoliberalism, has marked different activities and a new conceptualization and valorization of risk (Beck 2002; Douglas 1992; Giddens 1997). New economic and social dynamics have opted for short-term extractivist economies and financial investments that offer immediate profit. From verified information we have passed to the unrestrained information of the internet. In this sense, sports have also been disrupted by the social dynamics of risk and its economic and informational correlates. The emergence and massification of high and medium risk sports, so-called extreme sports, can be imagined as a clearer example of this process. These sports were differentiated by social class and by discipline, but their key distinguishing feature was the level of risk taken. BASE jumping (jumping from buildings, skyscrapers or bridges), surfing, or climbing crags were some of the sports that we perceived as carrying the greatest risk, but at the same time as being inaccessible for most young people. Hence, in large cities and among working class areas, sports practices that tried to emulate the excitement and dangerousness of the aforementioned sports were overcrowded. Among these practices, skateboarding, BMX cycling, parkour, freerunning and street workout (acrobatic sports) stood out. These sports were practiced by young men who often contravened the usual uses of public spaces, whereby parks and urban furniture for them became ramps or obstacles to climb or slide on. It is observed that young practitioners with some performances put their bodies, and in some cases their lives, at risk through the repurposing of urban space, whose architectural design is reformulated by the practitioners of these sports. As Le Breton puts it, “many amateur sportsmen in the West have today started undertaking long and intensive ordeals where their capacity to resist increasing personal suffering is all-important” (2000: 1). Some scientists, especially from the medical disciplines, have asserted that, as the result of the injuries that they may provoke to themselves, parkour may be well consider as an extreme sport:

Because of media exposure of this sport, amateurs are attempting dangerous stunts without proper training or protective equipment… The rapid growth of this activity in the United States is producing many different types of traumatic injuries, and as health care professionals, it is our duty to be familiar with this new fast-growing activity. (Miller and Demoiny 2008)

2 Parkour in the light of semiotics: the case of Mexico City

2.1 Contextual elements of the case of study

This article is informed by investigations related to the configuration of sport in Mexican society that have highlighted cross-cutting themes on men’s sports practices and, in particular, soccer in Latin America and Mexico (Magazine et al. 2017; Varela 2007, 2012). Multiple anthropologic and sociologic studies from this region have focused on the practices and representations of spectators and the identities created by soccer teams (Fábregas Puig 2001), particularly in men’s teams (Magazine 2008, 2010). A large part of these works addresses the configuration of youth and regional identities (Acosta García 2018; Arce Aceves 2010; Fábregas Puig 2006).

In other countries, studies of physical practices and sports have focused on the identities (Wheaton 2004) and personality prototypes (Willig 2008) that are prone to practice sports activities with certain risky characteristics. They have also identified elements such as the forging of “lifestyles” and the promotion of individualistic (and even narcissistic) skills and virtues that are dialectically related to representations in the digital world and “social networks.”

In Latin America, studies related to corporeity, masculinity, and homosociality and physical activities and sports have grown. Some texts (Bourdieu 2000, 2005; Connell 1997; Foucault 1991, 1992, 1996, 1999; Mauss 1979; Mosse 1998; Vigarello 2005) paved the way for what Archetti (1995, 1997, 2001, 2003 and Alabarces (2000, 2003, 2004 investigated around sport practices, masculinity, and the body. However, little has been published on specific studies that revealed how young men incorporate public space through new sport forms that contrast with traditional sports (Saraví 2015). This was the case of the so-called extreme sports, such as parkour, which are also sparsely regulated activities.

2.2 Methodological aspects of the observation

This study is a partial result of a larger piece of research which collected, analyzed, interpreted, and presented information on the ways in which males from lower-income areas in Mexico City constructed and displayed their subjectivities in public spaces, such as parks, squares, or streets through the practice of the following sports: 1) parkour or freerunning, 2) skateboarding or skateboards, and 3) calisthenic bars or street workout. In this work, we use only the results of the observations regarding parkour.

The analysis carried out and the conclusions that will be presented are based on in-depth interviews and questionnaires conducted in 2018, as well as data obtained from some of the most widely used digital networks in Mexico such as Facebook and YouTube. Some of the busiest places used for the practice of the three main sport activities in question were located in Mexico City. Ultimately, direct observation and work of an ethnographic nature was conducted in the following zones of Mexico City: Parkour: Ciudad Universitaria, in Coyoacán; Magdalena Contreras Cultural Forum, in Magdalena Contreras; and Jardín Ramón López Velarde, Cuauhtémoc.

Of these spaces, considered public due to their accessibility and legal status, minimal ethnographies were made. Once these spaces were located and characterized in a minimal way, a questionnaire was elaborated that sought to generate a general profile of the practitioners. Fifty-six parkour practitioners were interviewed. The criteria used for the elaboration and application of the questionnaire were based on a qualitative survey. This instrument does not aim to establish frequencies, averages, or other parameters, but to find a diverse range of topics of interest within a given population (Jansen 2013).

Five in-depth interviews related to parkour were conducted. Simultaneously with these interviews, the team tracked the universe available on the internet of these three disciplines. The basic criteria for this tracking and gathering of information had some intuitive elements given the wide variety of material that is available. Videographic and photographic material (mainly from YouTube, Facebook and Instagram) and verbal texting records (especially from Facebook and Instagram) were collected. The photographic material served as a support for the ethnographic description of the spaces and the practicing subjects. Four parkour videos were transcribed and analyzed in their discourse and editing components. This material also served as a complement to the one obtained directly in the field. All the information was collected with the consent of the informants and their confidentiality is kept using pseudonyms for its publication.

2.3 Characterization of the practice of parkour

According to the official website of Red Bull, a company that is dedicated to promoting extreme sports, parkour is:

… a type of training and a physical discipline that consists of going from point A to point B in the most efficient and simple way possible… Parkour requires jumping, climbing, running, rolling, balancing, walking on all fours and any other type of movement that the situation demands (in the space where it takes place) and has a certain resemblance to the classic obstacle courses. Although there is indoor parkour, which uses conditioned tracks (parkour parks), in general, traceurs tend to practice in natural and/or urban environments (parkour street). Recently, “competitive parkour” appeared, which was divided into two different categories: a) parkour speed, where the objective is speed; b) and freestyle parkour, in which originality, skill and creativity must be shown. (Kroeck 2020)

According to RedBull’s characterization, parkour is not usually practiced with such specific objectives, but rather to “self-improve, be stronger and more agile, overcome fears and gain self-confidence” (Kroeck 2020).

2.4 The practice of parkour as a language

When a system is identified, a distinction is usually made in regard to the peculiarities of its configuration. That is to say, the objective of a semiotic analysis is to reveal the internal logic that is found in some cultural practice, not necessarily explicit or without a high degree of formality. In this case, we maintain that parkour is a cultural practice that has been systematized to a certain degree and at the same time has gained, so to speak, its discretion, that is, a language that could already be identified in it, as is the case with other sports. What has been said should be nuanced when considering Lotman’s contributions regarding the dynamism that cultural events acquire (Lotman 1996: 48). However, proposing “a language” will allow us to visualize or appreciate it, in a kind of snapshot.

Parkour, like all sports, can be understood both as practice and as language. However, if you pay closer attention to the traceurs, it is possible to find elements that structure their practice, which can already be read in the manner of a language with grammatical content and its various meanings. The traceurs of Mexico City perceive their practice as a code more or less similar to that of writing or painting, and more precisely that of photography and cinematography. The city is understood as the “canvas” on which the corresponding “traces” are made through jumps and stunts; and the performance is often recorded on video, losing its ephemeral nature. We will quote below one of the most important traceurs in Mexico City:

¿How are you morrosfuckers [1]? I hope you are doing super good. Today I am with WE and what we are going to do is record a parkour video with the aim of portraying the cool side of Mexico City. Well, let’s see how it goes. Let’s hope they don’t kick us out of many places… I’ll explain. The idea is to make a video, yes of parkour, but not with many routes or very complex movements. It’s just a good parkour video that shows the city.

As shown above, the city, or rather certain “cool parts” of the city, which they call by the name of “spots,” serve as a framework for the parkour performance that, to be communicable, must be recorded and obviously edited. Some chilango traceurs (chilango is an expression that refers to people from Mexico City), in addition to practicing parkour, are actively filming and editing videos and photographs, which they neatly publish on different internet platforms. To do this, they acquire and practice a photographic language together with parkour:

I liked photography from the beginning because of parkour, because we wanted to create our own training content, our own image. And photography called me and I looked for careers that were related to photography and video. (Interview with A. Sánchez, January 20, 2017, Ciudad Universitaria)

Similarly, the language of parkour is established, according to the testimonies of its practitioners, through the performances of others, but mediated by images. The same interviewee recalls:

So… that’s what I didn’t like that there really wasn’t someone to teach us. That is why I am happy when my students take something out or thank me. I feel happy because it is something that I would have wanted, someone who knew how to guide me. If you see someone, you say “ah, I know how he is” or “I want to be like him” or “I want to do like him,” then it motivates you more if you have an idea or a visual image of how you should do things, if not it is like “I don’t know how to do it” if I don’t have a reference. (Interview with A. Sánchez, January 20, 2019, Ciudad Universitaria)

2.5 The irruption of the semiotic into the real and virtual spaces

From the Lotmanian semiotics perspective, culture is seen as a continuous process of meaning; there is a dynamic mechanism that, as one of its features, establishes a constant dialogue between the different languages. This makes it possible to generate meaning and produce new systems or texts (implosion and detonation), although never definitive because they will always be exposed to be impacted and therefore susceptible to transformation, sometimes gradual, sometimes abruptly (Lotman 1996: 48). For example, this is especially the case with artistic text, which, being “original” and finding no antecedent, makes it difficult to translate. A kind of reconstruction of the reality of the world is carried out, going from the ordinary to the unusual (Lotman 2013). The artist has the ability to reconstruct what is already there and provoke a new interpretation since what he or she shows did not previously exist.

2.5.1 The disruption in the case of parkour

The virtual space is where some aspect of the identity of parkour practitioners is developed or anchored. However, they must first occupy the real space, even if it is ephemeral. To a lesser extent, it is a continuation. It can be deferred, but it could also be simultaneous. In the virtual, the meaning can be accentuated, since discursively it can complement or give a signal of where the symbolic act is being directed.

A parkour group from Mexico City called Air Hunters illustrates the continuum between the real and the virtual:

On this occasion we bring you an unpublished material from one of our visits to Chapultepec, this was in 2019, but we had not been able to edit anything, so with the INSPIRATION that our friend Jair Guerra’s new TEMAZO gave us, we were able to release this single. (Air Hunters 2020)

As shown in the video from this interview, the practitioners appropriate the space, in this case, Chapultepec, a famous public park in Mexico City. But even more interesting is the narrative of the video itself. Team members record themselves in the act of recording. That is, while one of the members brings his camera in front of him and narrates some specific issues of the location, another member records himself and the member who is recording himself. The second member looks towards his camera, while he turns to his partner with the camera and ironically says: “This is Alan recording his blog for his channel. And now I also record well, I don’t know… to screw it up, to feel like Alan, but he records blogs” (Air Hunters 2020).

Space activates the creative faculty. On the other hand, it can also be an occupation and in that sense a transgression, although this is not definitive in material terms. It is similar to what happens with graffiti, in the sense that urban space is used, in this case the walls of the streets, to elaborate forms that symbolically are a transgression. But similar to graffiti, photography or video, which are later usually transferred to a virtual space, are the vehicle that gives meaning to the transgression. In the case of graffiti, it is an exercise that could have a political meaning at certain times, although not always. However, the fact of its existence already breaks into conventional space and in some sense transgresses order.

This is also seen in parkour. Additionally, it should be noted that in both cases the transgression is neutralized over time. It is something that Lotman (1996, 2013 has described in great detail when speaking of art as a phenomenon of the significance of culture and its dynamism. The author points out its cyclical character, which returns to conventionality. This neutralization can be seen in parkour as a cultural phenomenon, since the tendency is for it to become an accepted and institutionalized sport, despite the resistance of its practitioners. We think that it is inevitable that parkour adapts and gets transformed, as it happens with many other phenomena of culture. This has been explained by Lotman (1996, 2000 when speaking of the dialogical phenomena of significant.

2.5.2 Meaning of parkour: irruption and re-interpretation

The meaning of parkour is found in the transgression of space. It is essentially a resignification. From a semiotic perspective, it can be identified in how parkour practitioners select where to place their bodies in the space. The selection, from a Peircean perspective, will imply a perceptual judgment that parkour practitioners are continually making and that previously involved a percept. The percept for Peirce is prior to the perceptual judgment (McNabb 2018) and both are related to the categories, which are the basis of Peirce conceptual approach. From the aforementioned, we affirm there is a “logic of objects” that is imposed, which can be visualized in the approach taken by the parkour practitioner. It is a kind of imposition of objects, in this case, architectural, into the senses of the individual. In Peircean terms, it consists of a quasi-direct relationship with objects, which corresponds to the category of secondness, and which occurs before a symbolic interpretation; in the case studied occurs as an exercise of re-significant or deconstruction of what is already configured.

This first approximation by practitioners is a re-interpretation of space, and, in the case of parkour, it is shown more clearly since the function of the different architectural objects, already with a certain symbolic configuration, is blurred, redefined, and transformed. In other words, the original use or function is modified when the practitioner is in contact with the space and assumes it as a “blank canvas” to make “strokes” with the body. In this way, the intentionality of the architect or designer is relegated, reinterpreted, and takes on a new meaning.

In the case studied, practitioners have mentioned that Ciudad Universitaria in Mexico City is the best location to carry out parkour. This is explained by the type of architecture and the terrain where it is located (volcanic land), which features steps, roofs, and other objects, such as garbage containers, trees, planters, and outdoor sculptures. Breaking down the obstacles and the objects that surround the space becomes “fertile ground” to develop the skills of the practitioner. The practitioners observe and distinguish the space for adapting themselves to it or vice versa.

2.5.3 Creativity and the dialogical possibility of parkour

The practice of parkour plays a double game. It is not limited to a rhetorical function, which could be the case when you want to express a political position, but instead it also establishes a reinterpretation of something that is already configured in the space that serves as a canvas to elaborate the different body movements, “tricks,” or workout routines. Evidently, this reinterpretation supposes a creative process since that which fulfilled one function now acquires another due to how the individual interacts. Here is another testimony of a traceur from Mexico City:

The only thing I am very attached to is imagination. I see an obstacle and I start… an obstacle which is a bench, a fence, a… something that is there… Or if there is nothing, I also imagine that there is something. If there is a soccer field, I do quadrupedic training, I train movements, jumps, turns, speed. In other words, I exploit the maximum range of motion at the moment. (Aquiles, interviewed by Varela, June 21, 2020)

Compared to other sports, for example tennis, where there is a court that must meet certain characteristics and dimensions, as well as guidelines for how to interact with it, the peculiarity of parkour, as in the case of skateboarding, is the necessity to adapt to different places since a core feature of this practice is the search of locations and sites that can be used by practitioners to “try their luck.” Somehow, in parkour, urban spaces and architectural objects seem to have that characteristic feature that the court, which contains and allows the tennis practice to happen, represents in tennis. As Lotman (2000: 107) mentions, objects and users coexist in urban and architectural space over time. But this urban space has a semiotic dynamism, which in architecture is in itself eloquent, and even more so when these objects are reinterpreted by the subjects who use them and break with the initial meanings of their design. Social appropriations can be surprising as they happen in the case of parkour practitioners.

Large cities offer a display of forms and therefore spatial patterns which we use to interact with them. Some spaces have their functions clearly and rigidly demarcated, but other times, such spaces seem to be open to use. There is a certain logic that informs and guides some activities. For parkour practitioners, it is a practice, a technique, but at the same time they are aware of its creative and political dimension (as many of the testimonies collected in this study attest). Lotman says (2000: 61): “The game creates around man a special world of possibilities on many levels and stimulates increased activity. It is not by chance that the game – in particular sports games – exerts such a training action on the personality.” Parkour, on the other hand, requires an interaction, like it or not, inevitable for the objects that surround it, or for the individuals who intentionally or by chance are there when the activity is taking place, although parkour goes further because, based on its virtual feature, it also becomes a kind of show, which admits remote viewers, even followers or fans. In this case, the dialogic nature of this practice is solidly confirmed. In this case we observe a simile with respect to conceptual art in its aspect of performance or happenings, which at their time represented all the aforementioned elements: ludic, creative, transgressive and dialogic practice.

2.5.4 Performance as an interpretive source of parkour

From the perspective of sociology of arts and semiotics, reflection on the so-called conceptual art could shed light on how meaning is shaped in some of the manifestations of culture, including the sports practice of parkour. In particular, we can mention performance, which has been an artistic practice that, as one of its features, has tried to be irruptive, among other characteristics. The decade of the 1960s is full of examples in this regard.

According to Osborne (2006), the idea of performance alludes to many activities, at least in its beginnings “… from dance to theater, through music, the impromptu, absurd or eschatological interventions in conventional contexts, and public representations of intimate or banal everyday acts…” (Osborne 2006: 20). We could say that interventions in public space were a constantly used resource to transgress orders and rethink discourses. Although it was a time in which some artists, through their works, assumed a political and rhetorical character, since then, the intervening and occupation of public space – especially in urban societies – has been one of the recurring exercises of contemporary artists. This is the reason why we could not ignore how these artistic processes have been approached since they serve us conceptually to interpret parkour. In that sense, we are recovering the early idea about performance that defines it as an act or event that is incorporated only as an idea in the space-time line, since it fades, that is, “it is incorporated into the history solely as an idea” (Osborne 2006: 20).

On the other hand, another feature about performance that historians have detected regarding these processes is the accompaniment of other media that gives the performance the possibility, paradoxically, of being preserved. Some have called this documentation, which can occur in parallel and which arises as part of the performance. Documentation is created through media such as photography, film, video, and currently the resources offered by the digital spectrum, in a kind of re-materialization.

Based on the above, we argue that parkour finds a parallel to these forms of conceptual art, although it is another manifestation of culture. We can point out some aspects that are shared:

  1. It is an event that breaks into the public space (already configured);

  2. It has, as a sports practice, a ludic nature;

  3. In some of the cases it raises a vindictive or social discourse;

  4. Many times, it is documented or recorded.

However, in the case studied, it would be necessary to nuance this analogy due to a phenomenon that is concomitant and contradictory to the disruption of urban space: the design and construction of ad hoc spaces for the practice of parkour in certain parks of Mexico City, as in the case of skateboarding and the construction of skate parks. Additionally, some of the Mexico City’s parkour groups have established indoor gyms that aim to create controlled parkour training environments.[2]

2.6 The virtuality of the practice of parkour

At present, the breaking point of the practice of parkour, from a semiotic perspective, is its mixture of face-to-face and virtual-based presence. It is no longer limited to the occupation of public space, physically speaking, in the most colloquial sense of the term, but now we are faced with its virtual nature. Those merely ephemeral interventions that, in effect, would no longer be repeated, can now be recorded on digital media or transmitted live, via streaming, to many people in different spaces, as it occurs with performances in the context of contemporary art.

This characteristic is essential to try to understand cultural practices that apparently occur in an eventual and unique way, although in reality what we see are fragments since there is a kind of discontinuity of a totality. They are part of a complete process that involves registration. The practice of parkour, which by some can be considered a sport, becomes an activity with multiple sign functions (with a clear pragmatic component). This derives in an ethos of those who practice it and, therefore, in the possibility of a political expression: a discourse that is inserted in discussions in the public space.

The virtual dimension of parkour allows us to relativize its ephemeral feature. Parkour is a practice that finds a foothold in the virtual as a kind of continuity and at the same time with an anchor function. Additionally, their practices are also linked to the idea of ​​ “recording” and “uploading” it (sometimes edited) or to broadcasting it live (streaming via social networks). In short, it involves several issues: a) fixation on an electronic medium; b) its dissemination; c) the variable of “knowing that you are being exposed to an audience” which produces an awareness that affects the practice itself; and d) the debates produced in the comments or feedback already generated in the virtual registry. “Academia de parkour México” is an example of this aspect. In September 2021 they launched a call: “Do you want to collaborate online with us? This is what you should do. Contact us by DM. Send your best videos. Post the final issue on your wall and mention us. Your videos will be published on our wall” (Academia de Parkour México 2021).

2.7 Sports practices and commodification

Sport, beyond a physical and recreational activity, continues to be used for commercial purposes. Evidence of this are the large sums of money that are paid to advertise and market products related to different sports, such as American football and basketball, as we observe it in the United States, as well as other practices such as the considered industry of running. Brands appropriate sports or at least use them, both to trade related products and to find in their professional practitioners an image to promote their companies. In the case of Mexico, soccer is the sport that has the most followers, the one that is marketed the most (individually and collectively)[3] and whose economy is the most important.[4]

From the vast literature of semiotics and the rhetoric of advertising, it is known that persuasive messages that seek the adhesion of audiences start from what is already impregnated as a value in societies and not necessarily in an inverse way as was believed. In other words, advertisers collect the raw material for their messages from behaviors and their associated values. We do not affirm anything new; however, in addition to the strong link that traditional sports have with cultural industries and commodification, alternative sports such as skateboarding, surfing or parkour have been commercialized to the point that it contradicts their apparent rebellious and disruptive spirit, which is not necessarily something that is promoted by the practitioners. Although the economy of parkour is much smaller than that of soccer or other traditional sports, a part of the community of traceurs seeks its integration in a commercial way.

A parkour group from Mexico City designs and makes clothes that are assumed to be specific to their practice. An ad on their Facebook page reads:

Attention. This Monday, March 22, you can begin spring by training with all the comfort of our new Slim shorts!! Available colors: Black, jasper gray. Sizes S, M, G. 100% flexible and fresh cloth. 95% cotton and 5% elastane. Perfect adjustment. Adjustable laces. Hook detail on the waistband. Unisex design. Official price: $340$ Personal deliveries in CDMX (shipments [sic] with extra cost to the entire republic [sic]). Send [sic] Dm for more [sic] information, we are here to serve you!! (Efficaces 2021)

Like this example, several groups of traceurs in the city try to sell their training services and clothes related to the practice of parkour.

2.8 The political aspect of emerging sports practices

In another aspect, certain sport practices, such as parkour and skateboarding, have a political dimension since they could be considered as irruptive activities and carriers of messages focused on making visible the groups of people that practice them, or at least to carry a discourse that accompanies them (although this is not necessarily understood in its formality, as we have already pointed out). The beginnings of parkour and skateboarding are emblematic. They emerged in Paris, France and Los Angeles, California, respectively. At first, such sports were practiced in the street and their practitioners used to come from marginalized neighborhoods.[5] Over time, they have spread to other latitudes, and especially in the context of globalization, they have become international sports, which have even been incorporated into the Olympics.[6] The truth is that groups of young people, many of them marginalized, practice these disciplines throughout the world, paradoxically becoming practices that provide identity in targeted regions. What is peculiar, in the case of parkour, is that many of its practitioners are spokesmen for well-defined emancipatory discourses. There is a discourse that appeals to the recognition of identity. Likewise, one could also speak of a discourse of resistance to such sport being incorporated into the repertoire of “official sports.”

2.9 Observation results: identity traits in parkour practitioners in Mexico City

Parkour is an identity practice. In the first instance, parkour participants are essentially young and male, an aspect that speaks to us about the parkour-identity relationship. This is mainly because the masculine ethos itself already incorporates values ​​that are understood as belonging to that gender, such as courage and bravery. Parkour is understood as belonging to the male body due to the risk implications that it entails. Although they do not reject the female practice, it can even be said that they promote it, in reality, many of the practitioners view the performance of women in parkour with suspicion.

On the other hand, youth bias is also an identity trait. Some sectors of young people, since at least 30 years ago, have challenged practices and values ​​of sports that were created in the first half of the twentieth century because they are perceived as rigid, supervised, over-regulated and highly competitive. This is paralleled by the way cities are viewed: guarded, with too many laws and regulations, and blunt in their functions and designs: “the park is a park” and “the bank is a bank.” This double historical determination is what gives young people a sense of identity, because when they see that individual and collective creativity are truncated by the inheritance of past generations, they appeal to break the logic of spatial regulation and sports and to propose that the functional determination of the subject and of the city is no longer valid. Breaking what is configured is precisely part of the characteristic of the practice of parkour that, as we have already mentioned above, is observed in manifestations such as artistic practices of performance.

It should be added that such identity traits can be related to integration phenomena. It can be argued that parkour activity is a clear example that cultural practices can achieve integration behaviors, as observed in various testimonies collected. We can illustrate this:

Super, super baggy pants, torn by the same training; broken tennis shoes, yes, with holes in the sole, in the cloth, in everything. We always bring everything broken. Even the shirts can be torn with a stone, with a wire. (A. Reza Torres, December 18, 2018. Elena Poniatowska Cultural Forum in Magdalena Contreras municipality)

I know some people who listen to metal and rock and they like that, but we prefer more rap and pop or something that has a better beat. Normally we start training when we feel that feeling in the body of the punch that the music gives you. So, it is something that has more beat, I don’t know how to say it, that has more punch, more rhythm. That you feel the music. (A. Sánchez, January 20, 2019. University City)

It’s a trend for a parkour group. The truth is that almost all clothing is made fashionable by a parkour group. Before it was loose clothing but not so much. It started with a group called Yamakasi, which was the first. Then a group called GUP became fashionable and that’s where baggy clothing began just like everything else. The Latin look, very hip-hop, became fashionable. (A. Reza Torres, December 18, 2018. Elena Poniatowska Cultural Forum in Magdalena Contreras municipality)

Regarding whether the practice of parkour has had any repercussions in the communities where it is practiced, we can conclude that they are non-existent, or at least they are not noticeable. Because these activities take place in large and generally free-of-charge spaces, the repercussions are very little perceived. However, there is a more or less broad rejection of parkour. Police view the practice with great suspicion as in the following testimony involving a small altercation between a parkour practitioner and a policeman in Mexico City (next to the emblematic Palacio de Bellas Artes building in downtown Mexico City). The practitioner – identified as WD – is reclining and fully stretched out on a low concrete platform on the side of the Palace. Another practitioner is recording the scene. We quote part of the conversation that took place:

WD (off): I’m in the time capsule… I’m frozen.

At that moment a policeman passes in front of the camera:

“´Nomás [there are the subtitles in the video because of the poor clarity of the sound and for making mockery of the colloquial speech of the policeman] I bother you; you can’t lie down.

WD: Sorry? –He asks the policeman.

Police: “Namás” you cannot lie here, please [subtitles continue].

WD: Why?

Police: You cannot lie down … It is not a bedtime area.

DS [off]: How does it change or affect you?

Police: You cannot lie down.

DS [off]: Why? Just because you say you can’t – he questions the policeman.

Police: Because they are orders.

DS [off]: Aha, that’s why, but: What is the reason? Just why not?

Police: Well, you guys …

WD: Can you do a backflip? [in a quick movement, WD stands up on the platform and performs a stunt backwards] Ha… Now I’m going to be #LordBackFlip2 – he laughs and hints at the videos in which pushy people are filmed on video and they are nickname as lords or ladies.

The scene shows that for the traceurs, the Alameda Central (a park next to the aforementioned location) and Palacio de Bellas Artes are good spots since they have enough elements of urban structure to do complex challenges. However, the presence of the police can become an element that disturbs the ideal performance in that spot, but as we will see, it is also the police presence that is attractive.

3 Conclusions

In this case, parkour as an activity of a human group has involved a new modeling of space. It is not only a search for the ideal place to do the activity, but also an interpretation that in unison becomes a transgression. We could not affirm that it is an artistic activity in its own right, but we do propose that parkour involves creative processes that lead to a kind of breakdown, which combine a ludic activity and identity discourses, as we were able to verify in the case studied.

Considered a sport, the practice of parkour becomes an activity with multiple sign functions (with a clear pragmatic component), which leads to an ethos for those who practice it and, therefore, in the possibility of a political expression: a discourse that is inserted in discussions in the public space.

Parkour practitioners occupy real space, even if it is in an ephemeral way. The virtual space, live or delayed, is used as an anchor. Therefore, the activity is not limited to what happened in the physical space but continues in the world of social networks and platforms. In the virtual, the meaning can be accentuated since discursively it can complement or give a signal of where the symbolic act is being directed; for instance, the identity aspects, in this case linked to its masculine aspects.

Regarding the impact of the different practices of parkour that could be transferred to the virtual space, we can affirm that there is a definite organic relationship between the “real” and the “virtual.” Parkour arises in the virtual environment and, therefore, is largely a product of it. Parkour practitioners aspire to be recognized in the virtual world. Those who manage to develop their skills to levels that exceed those of the average can eventually make a name for themselves in the virtual world. This, in some cases, is associated with economic aspirations that can materialize in various forms of “entrepreneurship” such as classes and schools, clothing or equipment manufacturing or the production of specialized videos and photography itself. The fact that they can “monetize” their own videos is also an incentive for some.

Finally, from this point of view, we could reflect on contemporary male subjectivities, their points of encounter and disagreement, which can be explained by different social conditions and the subjects’ different perceptions of life. We reformulate all of the above as social values ​​in which risk is a novelty and is linked to ideals of masculinity, corporality, physical aesthetics and performance in public spaces.

Corresponding author: Ivan Islas, National Autonomous University of Mexico, Ciudad de Mexico, Mexico, E-mail:

Article note: Qualitative research used in this article was achieved thanks to the Program UNAM-PAPIIT “Masculinidades y riesgo: deportes extremos urbanos, cuerpo, espacio público y subjetividad en la Ciudad de México,” IA302418.


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Received: 2022-07-11
Accepted: 2022-07-28
Published Online: 2022-08-15
Published in Print: 2022-09-27

© 2022 the author(s), published by De Gruyter, Berlin/Boston

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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