Like PB’n’J: Urban Exploration and Graffiti

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When you’ve lived in an urban setting long enough, certain visuals don’t strike you as especially strange or unique. For example, there’s a table that sits on an empty corner near the intersection of Cass and North Grand. It’s a rickety old thing, but it’s placed right in the middle of the abandoned lot. It looks like something takes place on it, near it, around it. But what?

On Sunday afternoon, I left a photo location that I’ve been visiting since December, called The Magic Door. It’s located in near-North St. Louis, just a couple minutes north of Grand Center. The neighborhood immediately surrounding it is distressed, but not without life. Leaving there on Sunday afternoons, I’m struck by the sheer amount of churches, for example, several of which inhabit that corner of the world; as well as the great outfits worn by congregants.

Sometimes, I head right back down Vandeventer, into South City on a straight shot. Other times, a bit of looping’s in order and this past Sunday, I finally got a chance to see some commerce taking place at the corner of Cass and North Grand. Near that rickety table, an incense vendor unpacked two, other, folding tables, carefully aligning incense holders on the table, while placing “10 for $1” signs on each. The rickety one? Still unused, so that mystery remains.

That morning, I hadn’t pictured myself watching a sidewalk incense salesman set up his wares. But his location was right next to a burned-out shell, the four brick walls in various states of decomposition. This is a relatively-recent burn-out, with a car scorched to an amazing, orange hue in the dead center of what’s left of the building. If there’s a knock on people who engage in urban exploration (or its shortened forms of “urbex” or “UE”) it’s that they’re fetishists, in love with anything that’s abandoned, fire-ridden, demolished or otherwise outdated for modern use.

And this place had a bit of gone-and-forgotten vibe, just gutted by flames. But there was some life in the place, after all. It came in the form of a brick rustler, who was working away at the back wall. I snapped a few photos, due to the graffiti obvious upon the drive-up. On the north-facing wall, the familiar name of Sabot was seen. Inside, a large Cnue; and Roont, who’d hit the car’s skeleton, itself. Most interesting, perhaps, was the phrase “You Will Remember,” written backwards, along with some dating. After a couple shots, I decided to roll back through and, three hours later, the incense seller was still there, with one customer. The brick rustler was gone. And the graffiti’s gonna be there ‘til the place comes down. Likely with new additions added weekly.

Tales and Rails

As this project was beginning to come together, I reached out to some obvious folks, known to me through the Flickr photo-sharing site. There, as on Instagram, you can get a pretty quick fix on what people like to photograph and why. That’s true by just glancing at photos, sure, but it’s especially true when someone’s got a handle like STLgraffitiPhotographer.

 

Over time, I’d become a flickr contact of STLgP and I’ve watched his work pop up there over the past year, or two. There are lots of shots from around town, different walls and buildings represented. There’s also a deep string of photos from rail yards, often shot with a fisheye lens, giving all those bright, bubbly letters an extra dose of visual pop. Meeting in person, though, would be a different experience. What I like about his pics may seem like a backhanded compliment, but it’s true: he doesn’t ID a piece that he can’t fully read. As someone who still struggles in ID-ing a big chunk of the pieces and tags that I see, that’s kinda refreshing and shows confidence and credibility. That said, he knows plenty; both the names and stories of those that write them.

Starting out with the idea that we didn’t know what we looked like, we agreed to meet at the back end of a reasonably busy parking lot; but ours was a secluded corner with few cars. Arriving on-site, I got a message from him, saying that he was stuck on the other side of a passing train; as I read this, a train was passing by and I figured it was the same one. Emerging from the tall weeds, a minute later, I glanced at someone giving me the same, calm look that I was offering. But within a couple seconds we were chatting, satisfied that we were the two people with reason to be there.

We met at this spot to talk about graffiti photography. And for him to show me an underpass that had some legendary qualities, named after one of the key names in the local graf scene of the past decade, or so. We wandered the tracks, the last train now gone. There was a gray sky and the mildest amount of spitting rain, but under the bridge, that wasn’t a concern. I snapped some pics and we traded some anecdotes about exploring.

I asked STLgP to pass along my name and number to anyone he thought might be interested in talking. He seemed dubious that anyone would, but said that he’d ask a friend. Besides a quick Flickr message, or two, we haven’t talked since. While I didn’t gain any specific info from the encounter, it did provide an early framing reference for this series: trying to a get a fix on this bigger story isn’t an easy task. And it hasn’t been and it likely won’t be.

Who Got the Spot?

When STLgP talked, I got the sense that this guy has worked with a pretty set fix on how he operates within the community, keeping info close to the vest. Sharing and protecting spots is one of the most-interesting and potentially-complicated subtexts, one that keeps coming up.

For about a decade, I’ve popped into and out of buildings around town, even taking vacations with the idea of bouncing through abandoned spaces. Some of my best experiences in Chicago and Milwaukee, for example, have come in abandoned locations, a truth that’s alarmed some friends over the years. Usually, these urbex trips have come with other people attached, but about a quarter of the time, I’ve gone into spaces without companionship; it’s probably a stupid way of going about things, but it offers a degree of flexibility and freedom that you can’t get when running with even your usual, trusted buddies.

And over these years, I’ve been sharing, publicly, without a lot of filters. We’ve gone to a spot (be it a building, river, cemetery, factory, what-have-you) and have pretty quickly turned the photos into Flickr content or Picasa albums. That’s a big no-no in some circles.

Since I’m already guilty, lemme hit you with one story.

There’s a place on the Eastside, just off of Route 3. It’s the Armour Meat Packing Plant, a big complex of interconnected structures and two, hulking, brick smokestacks. For years, the Armour’s been a gateway to urbex for a lot of St. Louisans and travelers, as well. To hit Armour is to access one of the most-amazing, post-industrial sites in the St. Louis area. With the nearby Hunter plant recently demolished, and the Swift plant long gone, the Armour’s the last remaining, standing factory that harkens back to East St. Louis’ lengthy role as an American meat packing hub.

Over time, I’ve been to the Armour a half-dozen times, perhaps most-memorably after a long night at Granite City’s Jacobsmeyer Pub, where a local celebrity and I enjoyed a few beers before deciding that a nighttime run through the Armour, free of flashlights, would be a great idea. Despite the liquid courage, a series of groaning floorboards eventually chased us; but a memory was made.

Another came on a saner, daytime visit, when a few of us traipsed up a couple floors into one of the main buildings, seeing a door open to the Mississippi flats below. On it, a stylized script was written: “Best View of St. Louis.” It was quite a catch, that single piece of graffiti an absolute complement to the visit; we assumed to have been sketched by Ed Boxx, represented elsewhere in the structure. And the view was really nice, the Arch perfectly visible and seemingly quite-near.

These days, the Armour’s sitting alongside a newly-created road and highway overpasses and other infrastructural improvements, all of which likely signal the short-term nature of the Armour’s existence. It’ll surely cost a pretty penny to take down, but it’s too close to progress to stand. It’ll go, sooner than later.

In the meantime, you can go in, unofficially of course. It’s a spot. My spot and a bunch of other people’s spot. From my perspective, what’s mine is yours. Have fun. And bring a flashlight and personal protection devices of your choosing.


{the places of urbex are often impermanent through demolition, renovation or rising water – the USS Inaugural}

Insta Stardom

As Instagram photographers in St. Louis go, explore_stlouie_314 is working on level that’s focused and attacking a central, core batch of subjects. An urban explorer of high-quality, their work is prolific, too, most all of the shots captured on “an iPhone 4 with a cracked screen.” (Since replaced by an iPhone 5, without cracked screen).

In talking to them about their work, I’m struck by exstl314’s opinions. They’ve got a few, with a certain code starting to take shape after even a few minutes of conversation. For example, when asked whether there are certain types of building’s that shouldn’t be painted on-or-in, they say that “I do think so. I don’t paint. And, honestly, if I did, I would be tempted. I would have the rule of no raw brick. If you’re in a building in which the brick’s never going to be used again, or the brick’s not salvageable, I could see it then. But I don’t condone painting in churches, or anything to do with religion. I’m not religious, but those places are so meaningful to so many people, it brings such a strong response in people.”

Extending the thread, “I don’t like to paint on people’s houses. I don’t like people painting on small businesses; that can cost them a lot of money if the city comes along and makes them buff the building. But I do like graffiti. One of my hashtags is ‘whatcodedoyouliveby.’ Everyone’s different, no one sees things the same. But there should be rules, should be codes of conduct. And if graffiti people don’t want punishments to be so harsh, there’s got to be a code.”

That applies to spots, too. As exstl314 mentions above, they don’t paint, but they do visit countless locations where graffiti’s represented. And here’s where exstl314’s own code comes into play: “If someone takes you to a spot, you don’t give it away without that person’s permission. So it’s a lot like it is with graffiti people, you try to be respectful of people’s space. I don’t do drama, or get in the middle of people’s shenanigans. My code is my code. I choose to have respect.”

A perfect day for extstl314 is to sit above a railyard and watch graffiti-clad trains roll by. Or finding a new location to explore, often found by tracking urban preservation blogs. Or sitting in an abandoned space and watching a graffiti writer take a blank wall for a canvas.

“Can’t tell you where,” extstl314 says, “but we took someone to a spot that we found on the North Side. On the way down, he said that he just wanted somewhere to paint. To get up on a highly-visual spot, you have no time. But I took them to this spot on the North Side and it was great. This process, I dunno, I just love it. I love watching it go up. You can definitely see someone in their element. It was great. It was done to scale and was beautiful. All the colors, the shapes. It was thought-out.”

In creating a huge-and-growing body of work, exstl314 is capturing a lot of the nooks-and-crannies that St. Louisans pass by on a daily basis. And, it seems, these photos are creating no small amount of conversation, with comment threads routinely breaking out.

“Feedback is great, I like to know what people are thinking,” exstl314 says. “But drama’s not my department. I just document.”

The Walls Talk

It seems as if a lot of our conversation today’s revolving around documentation, specifically photography. And we’re not done quite yet. This past weekend, the pop-up installation series This Must Be the Place arrived at 3531 California, just south of Cherokee in the Gravois Park neighborhood. The two-family house, recently (but only partially) burned, was transformed by a series of art pieces, each of them using the distressed rooms as artists saw fit. In the first-floor hallway, visitors were greeted by dozens of photos by Amity Schneider, who pictured a number of different urbex locations around St. Louis, clad in vintage, thrift store frames.

She said she became involved in the project, “when a friend posted a link to the event on his Facebook page. “I was immediately intrigued by the concept. I have never shown any of these photographs before, besides a few here and there on Facebook, or on a UE forum that I frequent. I can't say I consider myself an artist, either. I chose the most powerful images I had to be in the show. They may not have been the most beautiful, but I think they spoke to the feel of the show itself and did a good job blending into the surroundings. I burned the hell out of those frames too, that was pretty bitchin'.”

“My favorite places are those rich in history,” she says. “I have fallen in love with the Clemens Mansion. This is actually the first place I explored here in STL (I've only lived here for a couple of years, a small town MN transplant), after going to a presentation put on by Michael Allen. I drove by after hearing about the place, and decided I needed a closer look. I got through the fence and crawled up the stairs to the chapel. Reaching the top of those stairs and looking out onto the altar of the Clemens’ chapel will always stand out in my mind as one of the most powerful experiences I have ever had. I don't just get into random places I see, I try to do research before I go so I can know exactly what I am looking at. And yes, I generally keep the smaller, more intimate locations to myself. Not because I am arrogant and want to keep them ‘mine,’ but out of respect to the owners, caretakers, etc. Also, I am not really ‘in’ with the UE culture here in STL. That is, I don't really talk to anyone about what I do that has had experience besides a forum that I use. I'm a loner, I suppose, but I like to keep it that way.”

Asking about the role that graffiti plays in the process of experiencing UE, she’s expansive:

“This is a tough question. I would imagine nearly everyone will answer this differently. For me, personally, graffiti plays a very minor role in MY urbex process. That is, I explore based on history and to see the effects of time and decay on property. I do not explore to see modern graffiti on historic buildings. But I know many people may do this specifically. Live and let live, I say, we all have differing thoughts and hopes when exploring St. Louis.

“No, it is NOT strange to see no sign of graf. Like I stated previously, I do not UE based on finding graf, so it plays a minor role. I must say that I sometimes prefer to see a clean slate. Also, I UE all over Missouri due to the field of work I am in, and most of the places I have seen outside of STL have little to no graf, at all. I guess I am just realizing this now, but I pay much more attention to overall structure and architecture than to graf on the walls of said buildings. Strange. Now that I am aware that this is my perspective, I’ll have to see if this changes due to my new-found awareness.

“So, obviously, as I pay little attention to graf, I do not keep an eye on particular taggers. I know of the so-called popular taggers around here, like RatFag and Redfox. But yet, this is never my focus and I'm honestly not doing it for that purpose. I had to look through all my photographs again when thinking about how to answer this question, and noticed that I have NO photographs in which the tag/graf is the focus. Not one. Interesting. There is certainly a lot of graf in my photographs, but it is more supplemental to the structures in which I am focusing on.

“Are there places that should not be tagged? YES. Someone has put some terrible, juvenile-looking black tag right on the altar at Clemens. I was shocked at the arrogance and disrespect of this person, to tag something that was graf free and well known throughout the city as a thing of beauty. That broke my heart. Of course, there are many examples of this, including that god-awful white paint disaster that Tron did on St Mary's. Other places, like what is known as the Candy Factory on Gravois, are so full of graffiti that a little more won't hurt anybody. But historic buildings should be respected as such. I strictly subscribe to the ol' urbex mantra: “Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints.’”

Additional Reading and Viewing

There are various documentary films and shorts that touch on urban exploration, in all of its many forms. But few do as comprehensively as “Urban Explorers: Into the Darkness,” directed by Melody Gilbert. Hanging with explorers in both North America and Europe, Gilbert’s film captures the gritty exhilaration that comes with the hobby. Click here for the film’s website featuring trailers, reviews and other promotional materials. It appears that someone’s also loaded the entire film onto YouTube, here:

Since we’re talking about inherently law-marginal topics here, far be it from us to lecture you on watching free material. No matter what, though, if you’ve made it to this point in the article, you will dig this excellent documentary.

Just as Gilbert’s made the benchmark film on urban exploration, Moses Gates has written the definitive-to-date book on the topic, with his recently-released “Hidden Cities: Travels to the Secret Corners of the World's Great Metropolises; A Memoir of Urban Exploration.” Exploring across multiple continents, Gates takes us from the crypts below Paris to the bridges above New York City, with a fun style of writing that captures his own thrills and occasional spills. The book’s a quick read; my own run through it came in about two sittings over three days. I wanted to let the book simmer more slowly, but I couldn’t stop myself from finishing it that efficiently. These days, books are often accompanied by excellent video trailers, and this one’s no exception to the trend, with some eye-popping visuals:

Lastly, we’ll note some local coverage (and commentary) on graffiti. On July 4, some friends and I went to a large building on the North Side. Upon leaving, we Googled the place and one of the first pieces that emerged came via Chris Naffziger, the editor of St. Louis Patina, a local architecture and preservation blog. As we all know him, we read about his own visit to the Jewish Orthodox Old Home and then peered at the comments, which skew towards a decidedly anti-graffiti bent. The goal throughout this series to present a variety of opinions on graf and this blog item represents another take on graf; the JOOH is liberally dappled by graffiti, with various members of the LD crew well-represented. Here’s a link to Naffziger’s take and his readers’ feedback.

Please consider supporting this journalism project via Kickstarter (click here)

Thomas Crone has reported on St. Louis culture and civics for two decades, writing for a large cross-section of local publications and websites. This summer, in covering the world of graffiti in St. Louis, he’s found a topic that neatly intersects a number of topics, deeply-rooted in the worlds of art, politics and the law.

Working on the 10-part series for nextstl.com, Thomas will document the local street art scene from the flood walls of Paint Louis to the back-alley touch-ups of Operation Brightside. Speaking to city officials, neighborhood activists and those involved in the activity themselves, the series will highlight multiples angles of the graffiti culture and its impact on the city around it. Though not completely limited to the urban environment, it’s safe to say that the piece will be focused on the central core of the St. Louis region, with the City serving as the primary home for the conversation.

Supporters at the $50 level and greater will receive this unique nextSTL.com logo T-shirt printed by STL-Style and designed by Chris Sabatino of Art Monster:

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