By Parker Brown
Growing up in the 1980s, Ian Reid was a skateboarder and graffiti artist. He used to tag many of the abandoned tunnels lying under Manhattan.
But now that the lifelong Brooklynite is in his mid-30s and has two kids, he’s given up skateboarding and graffiti; instead, he pursues a more noble art: taking photos of the places he once tagged, as well as of other abandoned spaces around the city and world.
Reid is an urban explorer and photographer, exploring spaces in the city that are often off-limits and left to ruin. In a way, his life typifies the journey of urban exploration itself: Urbex, as it’s often called, started in the 1970s as a fringe movement frowned upon by authorities, but has evolved into something that young and intellectually-oriented people do when they have a free weekend. There are now entire communities, online and off, dedicated to the art of exploring — and photographing — the spaces that are all around us, yet go unseen and ignored.
Urban exploration is now treated as a sort of high art by the thousands that do it (the actual number isn’t known). Some are drawn to it for its aesthetics and find in it a place to escape from the freneticism of the city, not unlike the spiritual solace sought in nature.
But the spaces sought out by modern explorers are different; the effect of nature on forgotten buildings can be ghastly, mundane, or even just ugly: piles of old trash, smelly sewer lines, musty shoes, decaying walls, a handheld Family Feud game from the 1990s. These aren’t ordinarily objects that would be paired with a word like aesthetic, but in the modern world of urban exploration, they are. There are academic papers with titles like, “The Aesthetics of Trespass,” and photographers dissect each other’s work in online communities, treating it as serious art.
Miru Kim, a New York-based artist, shed her clothes for a series of photographs of spaces of urban decay for an art project. In the photographs, her pale body is crouched or draped on rusted steel beams or standing in the filth of the underground sewer.
“It’s almost like meditation, in a bizarre way,” Kim told The New York Times. “It feels cathartic.”
Others that explore urban spaces consider their jobs akin to a historian’s, an intellectual endeavor locating forgotten spaces and stories and seeking to recreate the past.
Steve Duncan, perhaps New York City’s most famous urban explorer, gives tours of the city and sometimes lectures at the New York Explorer’s Club, a swanky society on the Upper East Side dedicated to exploration of all kinds.
Duncan’s lectures attract hordes of wealthier people interested in urban exploration as an academic topic and possibly a personal undertaking.
“We don’t usually have graffiti artists come to our events,” said Chris Hirokawa, an executive assistant at the Explorer’s Club. Instead, urban exploration attracts those who are seeking something from the spaces they visit other than marking them up.
Ian Reid finds meaning in his visits to long-ago closed asylums and hospitals. “People did live there at some point in time, and it’s very interesting to me. And sometimes you find records and things about the place or the people that were there, and you kind of get lost in the fantasy of it: What if I was here?”
(Here’s another article in our series, about urban explorer Julia Wertz and her fascination with hospitals.)
But the modern attraction to urban exploration belies its past, which began with graffiti artists, according to a member of LTV Squad, a New York City-based group dedicated to urban exploration. Control, as he likes to be known – he didn’t want his real name to be used for fear of offending others – said that the demographics of urban exploration have definitely changed.
“Growing up here in the 70s and 80s, next to no kids I knew had the money to get a camera. Even with one, developing film cost money,” he said in an email.
“In general explorers here are a little whiter, slightly older and have way more money.”
Control pointed to a video of famed graffiti artist Michael “Iz the Wiz” Martin exploring New York’s subway tunnels in the early 1980s to showcase some of the first urban explorers in the city.
And Steve Duncan, who has been exploring the city since his late teens, told a group during a TEDx talk in 2012 that at the beginning of his exploration he had more base motives for exploring the city.
“I would go into places that are off-limits because they are off-limits,” he said. “I was basically a recreational trespasser.”
While many urban explorers are often still technically trespassing onto public and private property, there is something decidedly less punk-rock about urban exploration now.
Reid said he remembers the days of being in the tunnels, but those days are gone; it’s the architecture and the history that interests him now.
“Sometimes you have a quest for knowledge that the Internet can’t provide,” he said. “And that’s called experience.”
Parker Brown is a journalist and photographer based in New York City. You can find more of his work at brownparkere.com.