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The Graffiti Hunters

Urban explorers risk trespassing violations, injury, and even death to photograph a hidden world of aerosol art for all the world to see.



On a warm spring day, I followed local graffiti photographer and urban explorer Michael (whom the Express agreed to not fully identify) across a green stretch of park lawn. We passed kids playing in the grass and a couple lounging on beach blankets, their heads almost touching as they talked. The weather was perfect for lazily soaking up the sun, but Michael's walk was straight and determined, and I had to jog every few steps to keep up with my six-foot-four guide.

Out here, we were exposed, and Michael wanted to avoid drawing attention as we approached our destination. My bright red rain boots were not helping the cause. Luckily, the kids and the couple didn't seem to notice my conspicuous getup. And as far as we could tell, we made it across the lawn without arousing suspicion.

When we reached our target, I was immediately thankful for the boots. Hiding beneath an archway of tree branches and hanging vines, the square mouth of a concrete cave yawned before us. But to pass through the gray gap and into the tunnel beyond, we first had to step off the dry grass and trudge through a moat of knee-high bog water. I managed to totter through the short stretch of muck and algae-covered logs without losing my balance, and I was immediately rewarded with a large painting of Swamp Donkey, a character painted by the local artist Swampy, which looks like the skull of a beast with exceptionally long, curved tusks and horns like giant conch shells. The words "Friendly Guard Dogs," "Low Hangin' Felony," and "All My Friends Are In Jail" filled the wall space around the tusked creature.

This spray-painted welcome was just the start of what we had come there for. The tunnel ahead promised four and a half miles of underground graffiti.

"Remind me again why I don't need to worry about drowning," I shouted as I followed Michael through the ten-foot-high drainage tunnel. "Because it's not raining," he answered. His short response seemed logical enough. We're in the middle of a drought after all, but I couldn't stop picturing the shallow river at our feet turning into a wall of water rushing toward us. People have drowned in similar flood control channels, and I wasn't eager to add my name to the list of deaths.

Michael, who is careful not to enter any tunnel or creek with more than six inches of running water, regularly takes these sorts of risks. In the last year, he has explored this tunnel four times, and he's wandered through fourteen other creeks and tunnels in the East Bay — all for the purpose of photographing underground art and posting the pictures on Instagram. Known to his 6,873 followers as Hellagraffdotcom, he's one of the most consistent and dedicated local graffiti photographers on the social media site. Other local graffiti photographers popular on Instagram include Streetview (6,630 followers), Mrxclownxface (6,576 followers), and Pixelina (6,031 followers). With nothing more than hashtags to promote themselves, these amateur photographers often have as many (and sometimes even more) followers than the graffiti writers whose work they document. They consistently garner between 300 and 400 likes on their posts, and pleas for "trades" and requests to go out exploring litter their comments.

Graffiti, urban exploration, and photography have long gone hand in hand. It began with the birth of graffiti culture in New York City in the 1970s, when writers first started painting in subway tunnels to avoid getting caught. Soon, photographers followed, tracking down these underground locations to document the work before it disappeared. A relationship that's part call-and-response, part hide-and-seek arose: Graffiti writers leave a mark that declares, "I was here," and the photographer follows to say, "I saw you."

Today, Instagram and other online photo-sharing sites have dramatically changed the scale and speed of this urban scavenger hunt. Photos that were once collected in albums and shared in person at writers' benches (places where writers would hang out and compare snapshots and sketches) can now be shared with millions of people around the world within seconds.

One of the results of this relationship has been a huge increase in the popularity of graffiti — as well as its cuter sibling, street art — in the last decade. Even though graffiti is considered vandalism in the eyes of the law, art collectors regularly shell out thousands of dollars to purchase pieces of this once explicitly anti-commercial work. Bansky's stencil, "Kissing Coppers," sold at auction for $575,000 in February after being removed from a pub wall in Brighton, UK. Last year, his stencil, "Slave Labour," which was originally spray-painted on the side of a discount shop in London, sold for $1.1 million. In the 2013 rankings of global financial research firm Wealth-X, Los Angeles-based street artist David Choe tied with Jeff Koons as the world's fourth richest artist, with an estimated net worth of $100 million. Shepard Fairey, famous for his "Obey" wheatpastes and Barack Obama's iconic 2008 "Hope" campaign poster, has reportedly cashed in on graffiti's cultural cachet to the tune of $15 million. You are more likely to find Fairey's ubiquitous silk-screen work framed in galleries — including the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, where his Obama poster now hangs — than plastered on city walls.

On a local level, Oakland gallery LeQuiVive exhibits artists who straddle both the street art and fine art worlds. The gallery's roster of aerosol artists includes Cannon Dill, David Polka, Nina Wright, and Irot Che, all of whom have illegally painted in abandoned buildings and on urban walls. Loakal Gallery, which frequently exhibits muralists and street artists, such as Chris Granillo, Nite Owl, and Reggie Warlock, has sold pieces for upwards of $2,000. GATS (Graffiti Against the System), the Oakland artist known for painting masklike faces with ropey beards, sold original pieces for $4,000 at his recent show at the San Francisco gallery Hashimoto Contemporary. Swampy's hand-finished screen prints fetch $350 on the website Paper Monster, which sells original work and limited edition prints.

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