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As more and more graffiti and street artists are inducted into the clean, well-lit art world, urban explorers such as Michael venture into train yards, vacant warehouses, and military bunkers to find and document graffiti that is, in some cases, literally underground and definitely free of any commercial ties. For them, no framed print could ever compare to the personal connection and excitement they feel when they track down a piece in the wild.
"In art galleries, it's more for mass consumption. People dull down their work," said Michael. "Then there's the private stuff — the stuff where they go into these places and spend hours doing pieces that are ten feet tall by forty feet wide and they're just insane. You're not going to get that in any gallery."
Along with the thrill of what he calls the "Goonies adventure" of walking on floors he's not quite sure are going to hold up, Michael, who spends his weekdays staring at a computer screen as a customer service manager for an e-commerce website, also finds a sense of calm. "There's something about the effort that we put into what we do — the cuts and scrapes and bruises and soggy feet and bad backs — to find something you can't see in a gallery, because it only exists in this tunnel," Michael explained. "It takes out the noise. You're not thinking about yourself, you're not thinking about work on Monday, you're not thinking about girlfriends or ex-girlfriends or family or the next episode of Sherlock or Game of Thrones, you're just in the moment and clear."
On an unusually hot day in November 2012, Matt Henry and his friend Greg Miller drove to the South Bay's wetlands, parked their car, and headed on foot toward Drawbridge, a ghost town whose abandoned speakeasies, gun clubs, and brothels are now closed to the public. Miller knew that there was graffiti inside one of the sinking buildings, and he wanted Henry to see it. To get to their final destination, they had to ignore several strongly worded "No Trespassing" signs and then walk a mile along an operational train track with marsh on either side. Aware that one of the 100- to 200-ton beasts could come barreling down at them at any minute, the pair kept looking in both directions as they walked.
"Trains have to sound their whistle when they go from solid ground to marshland, so you hear them coming," Henry explained as he recounted the story to me. "But you don't want to rely on that."
At the end of the walk, they reached a bridge. On the other side sat the dilapidated town. With no marshland to slide into if a train came, they ran. The bridge was short, but it was long enough to give Henry an exhilarating (and perhaps addictive) rush of adrenaline. Once safely in the town, they found the prize they were searching for. On the outside of a crumbling cabin, Bay Area graffiti artist Girafa had painted a large cartoonish giraffe's face with bulging eyes. The small shack's ceiling had collapsed long ago, and only a few planks fringed the edges. With no roof to stand on, Henry climbed onto the top of the wall's narrow edge, and Miller snapped a shot of his friend gazing down at the crazed-looking giraffe.
Although the pair found the paintings without getting hurt, the journey wasn't without real risk. Seventy-six people were killed while trespassing near train tracks in California last year. Henry gambled with his life — or at least the threat of a trespassing ticket — simply to be one of the few people to see the Girafa piece.
That day was Henry's first taste of graffiti hunting. "We walked out there, took pictures, uploaded them to Instagram, and then I guess it kind of took off," said Henry. Since that first adventure, he has made a weekly habit of ignoring "No Trespassing" signs, and his Instagram account, Bayareawanderer, has swelled to 3,273 followers. His hobby has led him to risk asbestos poisoning in decaying warehouses (Henry wears a respirator to protect his lungs); walk along the bolted seams of an empty fuel tank roof as it groaned and popped below his feet; and wander through a field of spent casings and down the empty streets of an urban warfare training facility just to find out what was there (luckily, no one was practicing that day).
Before Henry started exploring, the San Mateo native was plagued by horrible anxiety attacks. He felt like he had plateaued at the ripe old age of 26. He spent most nights playing Call of Duty on his computer from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. He was acting out adventure online, but he wasn't experiencing any in the real world. "I needed to get out," he said. "I'd lived here so long, and I didn't even know what was around me. I had never really been to Oakland or Richmond. The whole East Bay was a mystery."