Fact: NYC’s Graffiti artists were the original U.S. “urban explorers”.

April 25th, 2014 by

Occasionally we here at LTV get snarky, extremely ignorant comments tossed in our direction from 'urban explorers' for the 'hideous' crime of posting Graffiti related content to this site, and for having published 2 highly regarded books exclusively about NYC Graffiti, and a 3rd that covers both exploring and graffiti within NYC's subway system. What these 'urban explorers' don't realize is one clear simple fact:

NYC's Graffiti artists were the original US 'urban explorers'.

Now that I've said that - let me highlight one of the key words in that sentence: NYC. In Australia, 'urban exploring' is an outgrowth of the Cave Clan. In San Fran, it grew out of bridge climbers like John Law. In Paris, it was the cataphiles. In 1990s Minneapolis-St. Paul, you had the punk rawk might of Action Squad. Exploring bubbled up in different cities around the globe in some very interesting and highly localized ways. Regardless of this, in the United States, the first explorers were NYC Graffiti artists. (I would have removed 'U.S." from my statement, but the cataphiles of Paris may have a longer history).

Let's take another minute to definite 'Urban Exploring'. In the context of this article - it means the organized hobby of exploring forbidden places. People have been exploring from the dawn of time. I know of individuals who have explored NYC subway tunnels as far back as the 1950s. There have always been a bold few individuals and small groups of friends who engaged in 'urban exploring' and never defined it as such. It didn't become a formal hobby until the 1960s and 70s, which likely coincides with authorities telling people 'no, you can't climb that bridge' or 'no you can't go in that tunnel'. One could even argue that 'Urban exploring' as we know it today wouldn't exist at all if restrictions on public property and liability didn't become a modern day festering legal fiasco.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, NYC's graffiti artists swarmed the city's subway tunnels - primarily to find 'lay ups' - trains parked in tunnels and ready to be painted on. A byproduct of this was that a smaller subset of graffiti writers started combing every subway tunnel in town - walking tracks and sneaking into just about every abandoned nook and cranny of the system (of which there are many). Around the same time, artists also took over abandoned buildings - such as the Lower East Side Amphitheater (seen in Wild Style), The Acid Factories (Phelps Dodge), The Sports Crew warehouses (former BEDT terminal).

All of this happened in the 1970s and 1980s - years before Ninjalicious coined the name 'urban exploring'. Years before the internet connected everyone - and in many cases, years before many of today's 'urban explorers' were even born. Thus if you ask a graffiti writer who regularly goes into transit tunnels and abandoned buildings around town if they consider themselves 'urban explorers', at best you'd get a a funny look and at worst you would get a kick in the crotch and your iPhone stolen.

You don't need to take my word for it though, here's a nice clip from 1983 where Iz The Wiz mentions exploring subway tunnels (the clip also of course shows guys going down into a tunnel via an emergency exit, or 'hatch' as we call them).

Chronologically speaking, there is no arguing this statement of fact. Now, I am sure this will upset a great many 'urban explorers' - but let's take a look at who the hater 'urban explorers' most likely to be pissed about this post are:

A) People living in rural areas or suburbs. I would venture an estimate that at least 60-70% of people who identify themselves as 'urban explorers' only go exploring in areas that are decidedly not urban. An informal survey of 20 people on facebook who call themselves 'urban explorers' turned up 14 who live in rural/suburban areas, and 6 living in (and exploring) actual urban areas.

B) Young and Arrogant - those who didn't witness this history and grew up in rural bubbles protected from viewing Graffiti by mommy and daddy. No - just because you read the same thing repeated 20 different times on 20 different websites that Ninj was the inventor of 'UE", does not make said dogma at all factual. All it means is that copying and pasting is a widely available 'skill'.

C) Pot-Kettle-Black idiots who blame graffiti artists for destroying locations when everyone knows 'urban explorers' are the problem. After all - graffiti artists didn't go around posting names of mental hospitals online and then bringing people they barely know into them. Graffiti artists did not create a website with a database full of location information that any clown with a keyboard could sign up and abuse. These days, graffiti artists (and scrappers) nearly always learn about abandoned buildings because 'urban explorers' carelessly spread word about them. If your local abandonment gets scrapped out and tagged up right after you post its name and address online, you can only blame yourself.

For a bunch of people that often claim they love history, it amazes me how few know the history of the hobby they partake in. This is why we publish graffiti photos and even books - and will continue to do so for decades to come. In NYC, Graffiti came before Exploring. Period. Exploring in NYC is tightly interwoven with graffiti because it is a byproduct of it.

And this isn't about ethics. If anyone actually thought 'take only photos leave only footprints' would work in a world full of self serving greedy and often desperate hungry people (scrappers), I would implore you to open your eyes. Get out of your suburban/rural bubble. Stop crying about what other people are publishing and go volunteer at your nearest soup kitchen. Do yourself a favor and try to obtain a world view that isn't so singular and sophomoric.

Thanks to Fresh Paint NYC for pointing me towards the Iz video.

9 responses to “Fact: NYC’s Graffiti artists were the original U.S. “urban explorers”.”

  1. PegLegGuy says:

    Excellent rant Control!

    Liked the video too,


  2. Angel 10 says:

    Nice old pics Control!
    The vid is a scene from Stylewars, IZ,Min and Quik in full effect…

  3. Mr. Matt says:

    Thanks for the rant. I always enjoy your rants.

  4. Phoenix says:

    That Iz vid is a clip from Style Wars, if I recall

  5. Control says:

    Indeed it is, I noted where it was from on youtube but not here. *facepalm*

    FreshpaintNYC(.com) found that clip online – it really says it all.

  6. Pete Falina says:

    Old fart, here. I’m much fascinated with the underworld that LTV is so good at exploring. I just don’t care about graffiti. I don’t cuss out the practitioners, though. The haters? Fuck them if they can’t take a joke.

  7. peckerhead says:

    Excellent article.

    I consider myself an “urban explorer” (and yes, I do explore actual urban areas, I’ve even traveled to other states to visit their cities. Fuck houses and barns and gas stations and weak shit like that) but just because I am an urban explorer doesn’t mean I hate on the graf artists who decorate these places and I certainly don’t argue with the history of this illicit sport that the graf artists and explorers share. We all know who came first and I respect that.

    If I don’t want a fresh spot getting blown out and tagged up, I wait to publish photos or video of it (and I certainly don’t post names or addresses . No big deal. Keep doing what you’re doing. If people get mad about it, fuck em. Both urbex and graf have rich cultures and histories surrounding them… This shit is all interesting to me.

  8. namesbutnotfaces says:

    Funny enough, graffiti writers dont post spots online, or addresses, they dont meet up with random people online to do “urbexing trips” and post ” Oh look rust and asbestos photos”. Writers like to keep spots to themselves. Funny enough if you look at all the DC urbexing sites, theres a TON of places that aren’t listed that writers frequent because its just that, writers dont ruin there subculture for hipsters and mid 30’s patagonia wearing fucks to ruin. I really dig this rant as it blows up the spot when some hipster parks his 2014 prius outside of a good spot to go take photos with his 1500$ camera and feel edgy and cultured. If you want spots to stay good dont post it online! or tell people you dont trust.

  9. HahaSasha says:


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  • About The Author

    Bad Guy Joe

    Bad Guy Joe

    Bad Guy Joe knows more about the NYC underground than anyone else on or below the surface of this planet. He has spent nearly 30 years sneaking into NYC’s more forbidden locations. When not underground, he’s probably bitching about politicians or building something digital.

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