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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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In 2013, he saw that someone had kicked in the door to the Jetro Cash & Carry warehouse. Inside, the roof had collapsed in the middle, creating a sort of post-apocalyptic atrium surrounded by huge, smooth white walls. He decided to make them his canvas. He patched up holes from people trying to strip the building's wiring, and eventually put his own lock on the door. At 7 a.m., while most people were getting ready for work, Jurne would go to the warehouse to paint. He brought friends in and the white walls began to fill with candy-colored pieces that took hours, and sometimes days, to complete.

"Then, of course, it got discovered and it wasn't that way anymore," said Jurne.

The vacant building was demolished following a fire in January. Some hold up its destruction as evidence of the over-exposure — and ultimate destruction — of graffiti spots, in part because of Instagram. Although Jurne thinks it's inevitable that spots will get blown up, he does concede that some on Instagram lack proper graffiti etiquette. "They'll say, 'This new spot on so-and-so street is dope. You should check it out.' You shouldn't put that out there."

"Jurne's House was definitely a shame," GATS wrote. "I've never seen such a pristine yard. He spent years painting that building in secret. Once photos of it popped up on the Internet, the search was on.

"I'm a little frustrated that places that used to run for years now only last a week or less due to Instagram culture and posting locations," he continued. "Hidden space used to be very elite. A select few would find and work in an abandoned building and only share the location with a handful of other graffiti artists who had earned their respect."

Few, if any, writers in the Bay Area are as visible as Mike. His YouTube video, "A Mile in Mike's Shoes," includes news footage of his name on the old eastern span of the Bay Bridge, shots of him tagging walls during the day as pedestrians and cars pass by, and images of him standing on a narrow ledge several stories high, spray-painting the Hibernia Bank Building's central dome in San Francisco. He's rightfully earned a reputation for being everywhere — including secluded spots.

"When you find your own little piece of heaven, it's yours. It's cool to share the photo or the memory," said Mike. "But to tell someone where it is could ruin that spot for everyone else. It's like going to a waterfall that only you've ever been to. You go there privately to get your own little bit of therapy. And then the next time you go, there are a bunch of mom and pops in wifebeaters barbecuing. And there are no animals around anymore. There's trash on the ground. You just took away that one piece of escape from somebody, and you ruined it."


Back in the tunnel with Michael, everything was pitch-black, with only our flashlights illuminating the way. We had only been underground for a few minutes, but already my heart was beating fast and my breathing was shallow. In the concrete tunnel, light and sound were quickly swallowed up or redirected. Even with our flashlights, the darkness felt tangible, like some sort of inky subterranean ooze circling around us. And I was almost convinced that zombies were waiting in the shadows. I could barely make out what Michael was saying even when he was nearby, and when I spoke, my words seemed to float away in a series of muffled echoes.

Along with all this sensory disorientation, I was also hyper-aware of the fact that I could only run in two directions — either forward or back. I tried to shake off the thought that this would be a really dumb way to die, and I kept sloshing ahead.

But there was comfort to be found in the network of storm drains that run beneath Oakland. Bright spray-painted words covered the walls that curved around us, including such supportive messages as "Keep Going," "Hey, Are You Alright? Don't Worry It'll Be Okay," and "Sometimes The Wrong Decisions Lead To The Right Places." And, of course, there were beautiful, carefully painted names and characters. Among the miles of pieces was a long-toothed golden GATS with heavy eyelids; a Girafa that blends the artist's trademark character with Super Mario; a series portraying Musk, an adorable mummy with an oversized head, leaping into a puddle; and another painting of the mummy crawling next to the words, "We Creep, You Sleep."

After slogging through a long stretch of darkness, we entered a pool of light spilling in from the grate overhead. I could hear children laughing. Aware that the people above might hear us as well, Michael and I both stopped talking. In the hushed air, I felt like I was walking on hallowed ground. With or without the incentive to paint pretty pieces for international audiences on Instagram, I could see why writers would want to escape to a place like this, and why they'd want to protect it.

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