Graffiti Hunters

April Kilcrease joins those who track the wily urban explorer via Instagram shots.

This article first appeared in The Magazine, issue 32, December 19, 2013, a subscriber-supported electronic periodical that publishes every two weeks. Articles from The Magazine appear regularly at Boing Boing.

GATS between two many-eyed cats by Imp.

“Watch your step,” Nick Saraceni tells me right before he stops and looks at the bottom of his black Nikes. The 24-year-old graffiti hunter and I are standing along the side of a brick warehouse in an industrial part of Berkeley, California. Below our feet lies an uneven pile of plastic sheeting, loose wooden planks, and, as Saraceni has discovered, nails.

He insists he’s fine. It’s just a small puncture wound. I decide to take him at his word: I need him to be okay. He’s my guide to getting into an abandoned warehouse turned hidden graffiti art gallery, a place I’ve only seen in photos on Instagram. In front of us, a chain-link fence has been pulled away from the wall, evidence of earlier urban explorers. Saraceni slips through. I follow.

We’re in a courtyard of sorts, barricaded on all sides by tall concrete buildings. A line from a poem by Roberto Miguel and painted by the local street artist GATS (Graffiti Against the System) borders the top of one outer wall: “Mechanized Rusting Marking Time. Clinging Toxic at Concrete.” Dust-covered construction equipment sits below a busted-out second-floor window, our entrance into the warehouse.

Before agreeing to take me here, Saraceni made me swear not to tell anyone else how to get in. I swore.1 And he asked one question: “Can you pull yourself through a window?” “Yes,” I replied, even though the truth was more like, “I have no idea. I’m a fan of doors.” Standing below the crosshatch of the window’s metal frame, I wonder if my answer should have been a simple no.

He gives me a boost. The flat metal bars dig into my hands, but somehow I manage to get my legs onto the ledge, turn myself around, and drop several feet to the floor. Saraceni climbs in easily without my help. At 5′ 9″ and 175 pounds, the former college baseball player is compact, but strong.

We walk into a large room covered from floor to ceiling with graffiti art. A series of GATS’s mask-like characters stretch along one wall, the ropey tendrils of their blue beards intertwined. Around the corner, the teenage artist Imp has painted his three-eyed sad reindeer character, and one of Paris-based Koleo’s skinless figures smiles from a pillar. A braided girl by Bella Ciao gazes down from the top of a metal staircase, and a Ghost Owl floats on an elevator shaft wall. Seemingly every inch of this 36,000-square-foot former ink factory has been painted. In September 2012, the Bay Area street-art blog Endless Canvas used the space to stage its public exhibit Special Delivery. Since then, it has been closed to all but those willing to risk trespassing fines and tetanus to get in.

Finders keepers

If the number of photos on Instagram with urban exploring and graffiti-related hashtags — including #urbex (330,630 posts), #urbex_rebels (102,506 posts), and #rsa_graffiti (70,200 posts) — are any indication, quite a few people are up for the challenge of finding their way into similar makeshift galleries. Urban exploring (or urbex) and graffiti photography have gone hand in hand for decades. But the dual pursuit is experiencing a resurgence due in part to Instagram. Although within the urbex and graffiti community it’s strictly forbidden — and sometimes overtly opposed with threats of violence — to reveal the exact locations of abandoned buildings, tunnels, and other secret graffiti hot spots, Instagram and hashtags have made it easier for those interested in this somewhat fringe pursuit to find each other and to find new places to explore.

“I think Instagram has had a huge impact on the graffiti community,” says Roger Gastman, co-author with Caleb Neelon of The History of American Graffiti and one of the curators of the 2011 exhibition Art in the Streets at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. “You do something and it’s up right away, and it’s spread everywhere.”

Neelon, an artist who “started out doing crappy artwork illegally” as a teen in the ’90s, agrees that things have changed a lot. “The graffiti book involved digging, digging, digging to find photos. The only picture of something might have been taken in 1978 with a 110 [millimeter] camera with expired film processed at a stand in a parking lot. And that crusty little three-by-five photo with a phone number from 1985 written on the back might be it. It’s different now,” says Neelon.2 “I joke that for a lot of people, it’s kind of like the new taking pictures of your feet. There are times when I shake my head about it, and there are times when I think it’s fantastic that we’re getting all this great documentation.”

As Gastman explains, “So many graffiti writers don’t photograph their work. The fact that there are people out there documenting it, I think is a huge plus. Cities are buffing faster, and if the graffiti writer is up all night doing something, they’re probably not going to get up early the next morning to go get a good picture of it.”

Man in the machine

Saraceni was working at Google when he first started documenting the street art in his Oakland neighborhood. Straight out of college he had landed a contract job test-driving (or rather, test-riding) Google’s self-driving car. The job paid well, and it came with the promise of permanent employment at the company, something many comparative-literature majors with one-line résumés would fight for.3

“My job was to protect and improve robot cars, and after a truly incredible year of technological progress, I was obsessed,” says Saraceni. “I loved my job so much that I often let it define me.” Every weekday, he left his East Bay apartment before sunup, caught the Google bus to work in Mountain View, rode around in an automated car all day, and then returned home after sunset. As much as he loved his job, he began to chafe against the rigid routine. By the time Friday night rolled around, he rarely had the energy to go out. “All I wanted to do was rest,” he says. “I was 23 and working for America’s top company, but I began to wonder who was more of a robot: the car or me.”

Searching for a way out of the funk he’d fallen into, he began taking long walks and bike rides around his Oakland neighborhood, looking for old cars to photograph and post to Instagram. “When things become brutally boring, I’ve learned that the best thing you can do is do something you’ve never done before,” he explains. “That became the aim of my weekends — go somewhere I’ve never been and appreciate the beauty and the novelty. I thought that even though life had begun to feel repetitive and gray, as long as I could still find new sources of awe, things would be okay.”

While out on one of these walks in May, he stumbled upon a work of aerosol art that changed everything. He had stopped to take a picture of a rusty old VW bug on San Pablo Avenue when he looked up and saw one of GATS’s bearded faces staring down at him from a nook behind a billboard. “It’s not a wall that everyone sees. You have to be going slowly through your day and really looking around. That was one of those moments where I felt truly rewarded for wandering spontaneously,” says Saraceni.

Then, like any good graffiti photographer, he propped himself between the pillars and the wall and climbed up. “I knew that GATS was one of very few people to ever go up there, and I thought it would be cool to retrace his path. Plus, I wanted a better shot with my iPhone.” He snapped a pic and posted it to Instagram.

In an email interview conducted on what he calls a “secure computer,” GATS indicates that Saraceni’s experience is reciprocal. “A major part of graffiti is communication. Stumbling upon the same life path by accident creates a bond whether you ever physically meet that person or not,” he wrote. “In a world where everything is mass produced and made on a computer, graffiti is something that very much still exists in the real world.”

It blows his mind how dedicated some urban explorer/graffiti fans are. “I’ll crawl through a drainage pipe a mile under the city, through spider webs and water, to paint a small spot that I’m 100 percent convinced no one else would ever be crazy enough or motivated enough to find. The next week there are photos from five different people on Instagram who went through the same thing to document it. It’s like the world’s most epic game of hide and seek.”

Saraceni says his GATS encounter on San Pablo was the “whoa moment” for him. “From then on, it was like I had a disease. I began to see stickers, letters, and characters everywhere I went.” Instagram helped Saraceni put artists’ names to the art he was discovering. “I’ve done all my research through Instagram. I quickly picked out some of the big guns: teetonka, jsj83, bayareawanderer, pixelina, hellagraffdotcom. I would wake up and check their feeds every day, learning new artists through their photography,” he explains. “People tag artists’ names or the artists’ handles. And all of a sudden, I’m passing these guys’ work on the street, and I’m like ‘Oh, that’s Ghost Owl. Or that’s whoever.’”

His passion was contagious. Thanks to the power of hashtags, he went from having fewer than a hundred personal friends in his Instagram network to more than three hundred strangers within weeks. Seven months into his graffiti obsession, Saraceni now has 936 people following him for his street art finds. Compared to Bay Area heavy hitters such as Hellagraffdotcom, with his 5,430 followers, or Pixelina, with her 5,107 followers — or to New York photographer and Vice contributor Disco Bryso, who has a whopping 14,005 followers — Saraceni has a fairly small fan base, but his activity on the app has attracted the attention of fellow wanderers.

Oakland artist Ernest Doty at work.

Getting a backstage pass

Soon after his first graffiti post, several of the people Saraceni admired most on Instagram became exploring partners in the real world. “After pestering them with nonstop ‘likes’ and comments, a couple of them were actually willing to meet up,” he says. But like his “whoa moment” with the GATS painting behind the billboard, Saraceni met his main “flicking” partner serendipitously.4

On the weekends, Saraceni can often be found hanging out at the Pallet Space, an antiques and art shop covered with a growing number of paintings and wheat-paste pieces by local and national street artists. Saraceni manages the shop’s Instagram account on a volunteer basis and posts photos of the evolving murals as well as art for sale.

The Pallet Space’s Instagram feed lured Hellagraffdotcom, or Michael as he is known offline, into the shop on a Sunday in late August.5 As usual, Saraceni was there and the two started chatting, which led to the inevitable exchange of Instagram names. Says Michael, “There was an obvious moment of recognition. He’s like, ‘No shit! I’m Charizard22.’ And I’m like, ‘F-----g sweet!’” Michael then told Saraceni about how he’d tried and failed to get into Special Delivery earlier that day. Saraceni offered to take him, and the two headed off on their first adventure together moments after meeting.

For Michael, a 34-year-old customer service manager for Ebates.com, searching for graffiti takes him back to the freedom and excitement of exploring his neighborhood as a kid. “You could get on your bike and go somewhere new. As an adult, your block just seems tiny. The city seems manageable. So then you start asking yourself, ‘What about the places I’m not supposed to go?’”

X doesn’t mark the spot at all

Michael uses his “CIA skills” to find the hidden treasures he’s seen on Instagram. “I don’t hit people up for locations. Discovering something is so much better than being told,” he says. “When you turn a corner in a tunnel or an abandoned building and you see something amazing, it’s so much better.”

He hesitates to break down his research techniques for me, because he doesn’t want his unwitting Instagram sources to change what they post. I get him to walk me through one revealing example, though. “I saw a picture in an abandoned building, and there was a bridge in the background,” he explains. “In the East Bay, there are maybe five bridges, so it’s a process of elimination. You find the bridge. You look at the angle. You use Google Street View to get the ground-level angle. You look at the aerial view. And then you comb the area for something that looks like an abandoned building, and you find it.”

The duo goes out nearly every weekend now, working through Michael’s ever-growing Google map of some 50 potential graffiti sites. On the day that they let me tag along, Saraceni picks us up in his black Volkswagen Jetta and Michael navigates. They already have the easy rhythm of old friends. Saraceni tells a story about how he got teary-eyed over the beauty of life one evening while he was stuck in traffic on the San Mateo Bridge and eating what must have been the world’s most delicious apple.

After sharing that moment of vulnerability, Michael proceeds to tease Saraceni several times throughout our outing about whether or not he’s going to cry about how amazing everything is. Rather than seeming like macho bro banter, coming from Michael, a man who sports plugs in his earlobes with adorable little owls on them, the joking is affectionate and gentle.

We exit the freeway and drive up a dirt road to arrive at our first destination, a fenced-off hilltop with several empty storage tanks. As soon as we get out of the car, a GMC Sierra pick-up truck with a CB radio antenna on the back pulls over. The grizzled driver announces that he has a gun and he knows how to use it. The three of us exchange nervous glances. No one knows how to respond immediately, but after a few beats, Michael and Saraceni walk over to the driver’s window to show him that we only have cameras. Eventually, they convince him that we’re here to photograph graffiti, not create any.

He introduces himself as Eric, and he says that he has a roving easement on the road. “I’m right wing, almost anarchist,” he tells me. “I think everyone should be responsible for themselves.” But he’s worried that he might be held responsible if anyone got hurt climbing around the storage tanks. And he really, really seems to hate graffiti writers, or “gangbangers” as he refers to them. “They even started painting the road and the trees. It’s like a disease,” he says, echoing Saraceni’s own description of his relationship to graffiti. “It starts here and then it starts spreading out.”

After about 15 minutes of Eric’s stories about dopers, dead bodies (he’s says they’ve found two by the tanks), and hookers with a taste for Kool cigarettes and Black Velvet whisky (apparently, they leave their stubs and empties behind), he drives away, and we climb the fence.

Mr. Never Satisfied’s sad owl minds the tower watch.

As places to dump bodies go, this location seems pretty nice. Tall green grass grows near the towers, dense bushes and Eucalyptus trees ring the yard, and in the distance, the San Francisco Bay glimmers. And, of course, the “dopers” and “gangbangers” have left their mark as well. Detailed, almost gothic, lettering in pink, yellow, red, and turquoise wrap around the base of one empty silo. An owl by Brooklyn artist Mr. Never Satisfied, or Never, sits at the bottom of another. Dark circles rim its heavy eyelids, and a $1.28 price tag is clipped to its ear. Names quickly sprayed in black crawl like ivy along one tank’s ladder. At the top, an astronaut with large, worried eyes seems to hover in a red and blue spacesuit, a piece by the prolific aerosol-wielding vandal Oracle.

Michael grabs onto a rung and starts climbing toward the spaceman. As he ascends the side of the tank, he calls down, “I’m afraid of heights.” At first, I think he’s kidding. He assures me that he is not. “It’s okay, though. I just can’t look down.” The tank looks about three or four stories high. With his “eyes on the prize” attitude in mind, I clamber up after him. Michael is certain that the artist known as Swampy painted one of his characters, the skull of a mythical tusked creature called swamp donkey, on top of one of the towers. My heart swells at the thought. Swampy’s storybook beasts have captured my imagination much the way GATS has inspired Saraceni.

We reach the top and find a blank canvas. But Michael is still confident. We cross between white rooftops and narrow, rusty walkways until we reach the farthest tower. I step off the bridge and the view slaps me upside my head. Unobstructed by railings, the roof slides into the Bay’s blue-green water, and the mountains cut a ruggedly handsome horizon in the distance. In the middle of all this beauty, swamp donkey’s tusks curve outward, beckoning us to come closer.

The surface is a patchwork of metal, like car hoods that have been soldered together. As we approach, the roof pops and groans, the sound reverberating in the empty cylinder below us. Michael and Saraceni get their shots and leave. But I linger. I like it up here. A squat metal pillar is bolted to the center. On the side, Swampy has written “It’s a sick, sick world. Call me. 321-CANT WIN” next to a drawing of a swamp donkey with its eyes sweetly closed.

As I watch the cargo ships and sailboats float by and look at the clouds stretching out toward the edge of the earth, I can’t help but disagree. Saraceni was right; the world is beautiful. Sometimes you just need an amazing apple or a view from an abandoned silo to remind you.

All photos by Hellagraffdotcom, except the sad owl, which is by the author.

Foonotes

  1. I’ve obscured some details, but you can no longer get in this way, either.

  2. To be precise, the 110mm format prints to 3 1/2 by 5 inches.

  3. Saraceni’s résumé had a single line: “pizza delivery guy.”

  4. “Flicking” is slang for taking pictures, particularly in graffiti culture.

  5. Michael asked that his last name not be used.

Published 8:03 am Fri, Dec 20, 2013

About the Author

April Kilcrease writes about rollerskating, whiskey, and breakfast tacos. When she's not working at her desk in Oakland, she enjoys petting baby farm animals and climbing fences. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, AFAR, and San Francisco Magazine.

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