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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.

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Henry has read up on the history and claims, "the owner said he doesn't care if people wander around the property. And if he won't press charges, we can't get busted for trespassing." This seems like a somewhat shaky guarantee. But I'm reassured by the fact that this is not a top-secret spot — it's well known to county residents, and is easy to find online. And besides a small, obligatory "No Trespassing" sign, nothing blocks our entrance.

Even in the bright sunlight, the ruins radiate a haunted beauty. A round concrete table sits near the base of the stairs and boats sail by in the glistening water below. Beyond, the view of San Francisco and the bridges spanning the Bay is stunning. It seems like a perfect place for a picnic, but this trio is not out for a leisurely Saturday on the coast. They fan out like cops clearing a house, each moving from partially built room to room, level to level, collecting their shots as they go.

"I feel like a kid in a candy store," Escoto tells me as I trail after her. She stops to peek in the entrance to a small storage area. Behind rusty barrels and discarded planks of wood, Swampy has painted his character in black and white. Next to the mythical beast, the artist painted the words "safe in my cave." Escoto takes her time to line up her shot and then we move on in search of the next treat.

We walk below planks interrupted with stretches of sky where a roof should be and past concrete walls sprayed with rudimentary graffiti. After twenty minutes or so, we round a corner and see Henry perched on top of a ledge above us, taking in the million-dollar views. Unencumbered by a heavy camera and light on his feet, Henry bounces nimbly between the rocky outcroppings and cement ledges. In the time it's taken us to move through two levels, he has already climbed down to the shoreline and back up through the property's switch-backing paths.

Back in the car, Escoto and Henry compare how many Swampy paintings they have photographed and where. A mutual appreciation for the spots they'd each captured on Instagram led to their first joint outing three months earlier, but they josh like they've been friends for years, tossing around names of spots — "The Ruins," "Three Canals," "The Castle" — and other artists — CCTV, Pemex, Oracle — like comic book nerds might talk about particularly rare editions in mint condition.

At the next location on the day's list, we park at the base of a dead-end street and climb through a grove of trees, our feet sinking in a thick layer of leaves. Tucked behind the trees and homes, we find two silos. While the Lava House begs to be explored, this place is so hidden and unexpected, I can't imagine discovering it without an aerial view. But others have clearly found their way here. Both silos are ringed with vibrant lettering near the ground and several ladder-toting artists have managed to leave their mark higher up — including Oracle, who has painted his big-eared character hanging from a noose with a ghost leaving its body. The words "Hang In There" are sprayed next to it.

In our email interview, GATS told me that he had never been inside an art gallery until he was an adult. "Galleries are great but I don't think they are accessible to most people," 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." As I walk along the wide bend of the silo, checking out the diverse range of styles painted on its surface, I'm happy to be far from any sterile gallery walls. Putting a price tag on a piece of art creates a barrier, leaving those that can afford it on one side and everyone else on the other. Out here, the only barrier to entrance is effort.


Although he paints in public spots as well, Jurne has become closely associated with work in abandoned buildings and tunnels. He turned a former Jetro Cash & Carry warehouse into a legendary yard for graffiti writers that gained the apt nickname "Jurne's House," and his 2013 show, Diversion, at San Francisco's 1AM gallery featured topographical maps of the East Bay's network of creek tunnels, where he often paints. He and muralist Matthew Litwack also co-authored the forthcoming book, Beneath the Streets: The Hidden Relics of New York's Subway System. Through extensive interviews and photographs, the book delves into the history of graffiti in the city's subway tunnels.

"I really gravitate toward those secluded places, where you can be in the center of the city and escape it all, but you can hear through the street grates the sound of cars rolling by or someone walking their dog," he said. "There's a tunnel in East Oakland that I really remember, where I saw these workers' scribes in the concrete from the '30s and I thought, 'Damn, people probably have not been down here since then.' It's cool that in such a highly trafficked, congested city you can find these little nooks that feel like you're on the moon, like no one else has ever been there before."

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