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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The San Francisco State University student began exploring with his friend Miller as a way to relieve his technology-induced isolation. On that first trip to Drawbridge, he happened upon the perfect graffiti artist to pull him out. Girafa painted his iconic yellow-and-black character all over the Bay Area, often tucked out of sight. He also purposefully left clues to where he hid his pieces.

"After I painted, I would leave my one-flow signature on things to let people know something bigger was close by, much like dropping bread crumbs," Girafa wrote in an email. "They would survive longer than the actual piece itself going unseen by what I call 'poachers.' I'm honestly impressed by how dedicated and determined Matt is in finding the remaining pieces I painted years ago."

Girafa stopped painting graffiti after his 2009 arrest (he was subsequently convicted for felony vandalism and misdemeanor vandalism, which resulted in a punishment of six months of house arrest, $38,000 in restitution, and five years of probation). "I enjoyed my adventures of going to places that hadn't been painted yet and likely won't be seen for some time," wrote Girafa. "Painting places like that reminds me of burying a time capsule — waiting to be discovered by someone else."

That neatly sums up the appeal for Henry as well. "If Girafa could go around and paint everywhere, who gives a shit? The whole thing is that you have to hunt for it," he said. "You have to find it before the city does. It could go away. If it does, you miss it."

Instagram serves as a sort of treasure map to this hidden art world. Explorers scroll through images searching for geographic clues — businesses in the background, mountains, freeways, and hashtagged city names. These clues, combined with the use of Google Maps, create the X that marks the spot.

"Prior to Instagram and Flickr, graffiti photographers had to work a lot harder to gain the trust of graffiti writers," GATS wrote in an email interview. "Most of them were directly involved with the community. Now there is an entire social group of just urban explorer/graffiti fans that exist parallel to, but dissociated from, the graffiti community. They shadow the scene, retracing the steps of graffiti writers, but without leaving a mark."

GATS said that it blows his mind how dedicated these photographers are. "I'll crawl through a drainage pipe a mile under the city, through spiderwebs and water, to paint a small spot that I'm 100 percent convinced no one else would ever be crazy enough or motivated enough to find," he wrote. "Then the next week, there are photos from five different people on Instagram who went through the same thing to document it."

Graffiti hunters are a cagey crew. They discuss particularly hard-to-find graffiti spots with the reverence others would reserve for the Sistine Chapel (there's even a spot referred to as the "GATS Church"). And they do not reveal locations easily. "It's the uniqueness and the secrecy — and knowing that you're now on the inside of that secret — that makes it exciting," said Henry. "You start to see things differently. You start to see boarded-up windows and think, 'I wonder if I could get in there? I wonder what's on the inside.'"

Before they're embraced by this guarded group, would-be explorers must first prove their worth by tracking down difficult places on their own. Instagram comes in handy here as well. Henry looks through people's feeds to see if they have photos of tricky places before he agrees to go out with them. This gatekeeper approach can seem a bit elitist and somewhat silly — like kids posting a "Keep Out" sign on their tree house. But urban explorers have good reasons for holding their maps close to their chests. When word gets out about a spot, a rush of people go to find it. The more visitors a spot attracts, the more likely it is that someone will report the trespassers. This leads to repaired fences, boarded-up windows, and heavier locks on doors. In graffiti parlance, "spots get blown up."

After promising not to reveal any locations, I managed to convince Henry and his occasional exploring partners Rachel Escoto (aka Pixelina) and Tanja Baker (aka Teetonka) to let me tag along one sunny Saturday. Henry and I ride in the car with Escoto. Baker, a lean German with an appropriately stoic vibe, drives separately in her pickup truck with two German shepherds in the back (a professional dog trainer by day, she often includes her dogs in photos she posts to Instagram). A petite 38-year-old with bright red lipstick and an equally vibrant personality, Escoto keeps the conversation flowing, relating stories about chatting with muralist Chor Boogie and dealing with the cops while on a urbex/graffiti outing with Australian street artist David "Meggs" Hooke. Although Escoto has become friends with some of the artists whose work she photographs, her words are charged with the excitement of meeting a celebrity.

The car talk feels giddy and gossipy as we wind along narrow residential streets lined with hillside mansions to arrive at our first destination, the so-called Lava House. Constructed in the 1970s, the multi-level home built with black lava rocks was never finished, and was razed to its foundation in 2003. According to local lore, a volcano god cursed the residence for the theft of his rocks, leading to the freak deaths of several construction workers.

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