by Chris Shields
around lunchtime on one of the hottest days of the year, and
we are deep in the splayed guts of one of Albany’s 800-or-so
abandoned buildings, stepping over long-rotting pigeon carcasses,
gagging on the smell of dead things, dust, old paint and rot.
We are wiping away the sweat that’s streaming down our faces,
stinging our eyes and pooling on our painters’ face masks.
And now, Dan and Shawn are explaining that this dilapidated
space is occupied by a delusional schizophrenic who surrounds
himself with incest porn, world wars, bombers, deck-of-cards
themes, bicycles, broken cell phones, Cup O’ Noodles, Dodge
cars and Christmas trees. And no, they aren’t put off by this.
“This is fucking sick, dude,” they calmly explain.
trip over a piece of what used to be a toilet and nearly spill
face-first into the carcass of a bird much larger than a pigeon,
I remember that this is what my companions do for fun on their
fool around. He doesn’t sugar-coat anything, and when talking
about his obsession, he’s nothing short of driven.
people are standing in line getting a sub on their lunch,”
says Dan with a hint of disgust. “We are packing up, running
into buildings, recording this stuff, while everyone else
is just getting fat. It’s brutal, man!” Dan is here for art,
for the graffiti left behind by local artists.
they find what they’re after today, it’s not the simple red
Slayer tag on the ratty, peeling wall that is also home to
a gang tag and a racial slur, but a painstakingly designed
blue wizard with a signature next to it, sprayed onto a dusty,
detached door, too big for them to carry as they explore the
Shawn (who agreed to be interviewed on a first-name-only basis,
considering the legal issues raised by their lunchtime activities)
aren’t in some broken-down mental institution left to the
inmates. No, they are in the Wellington Hotel, the once-elegant
hostelry just blocks from the historic New York State Capitol.
And right now, they are staring out a window overlooking State
Street, peering down at passersby who wouldn’t even think
to look up, who wouldn’t want to know what it is really like
in here. Just for a minute, I start feeling like this just
might be sort of fun.
the bustle of a weekday afternoon on South Pearl Street, Dan
and Shawn slip out of their offices, dressed in shorts and
old T-shirts. They meet in an alley in the shadow of the Pepsi
Arena carrying their backpacks full of flashlights, tools
and cameras. They pass by men in pressed khaki pants and colorful
shirts, by busy women in suits headed to power lunches. They
stroll by joggers in spandex and headbands, sweating out their
daily lunch break in a hurry to get nowhere in particular.
But Dan and Shawn know where they are going: past chain-link
fences, up a hill, and past a makeshift plywood door into
a hotel once frequented by tourists and now home to vermin
and the destitute. Then they are trudging through floors covered
in mush and slime, ceilings dangling with jagged scrap metal
and twisted wires. It smells like intestines, and that’s where
they pair essentially are: in a digesting center for this
towering, neglected behemoth in the middle of downtown Albany.
you remember that scene from Star Wars where Luke,
Leia and Han Solo are stuck in the Death Star’s trash compactor,
tangled in scrap metal and monsters’ tentacles? Well, that’s
what it’s like down here at the bottom of things.
a sense that this building, its tunnels and empty elevator
shafts, are somehow alive. And that has a lot to do with why
Dan and Shawn bother to risk the rickety old floors, the open
elevator shafts, asbestos, and unhappy squatters. “I tell
my wife, ‘Hey, I got $100,000 of extra life insurance, and
it goes to you if something happens,’ ” Dan responds, chuckling,
when I ask if his family knows what he does on lunch breaks.
got a kid. I’ve got a kid,” he continues, gesturing to his
masked friend. “He is getting married; I’m married.” He pauses
and turns to Shawn, who is poking his flashlight into a room.
“Hey, bro, how’s your woman feel about you doing this?”
ain’t thrilled about it, bud,” he responds.
it or not, Dan and Shawn are here for the pretty pictures.
graffiti that lured the pair into this decrepit mess. They
are here for the stickers, scrap metal and plywood labeled
Prvrt, Dwell and Unit, and for pictures of toilets, whales,
wizards, birds and angry children. And they weren’t drawn
into these buildings on a lark. They saw pictures of the graffiti
posted by the artists themselves on the popular photo-sharing
site Flickr. They read the hints the artists left, and pieced
together exactly where they should be exploring.
not that the works of art by local graffiti artists can be
found only in the recesses of abandoned hotels and factories—they
also are attached to street signs, patched onto the sides
of buildings, splayed over the open mouths of women on billboards—but
the thrill of finding these works in the middle of so much
decomposition, where no one really should be, is, for Dan
and Shawn, what makes the effort worthwhile.
the thrill of the hunt was what led this pair of state workers
into the back end of the Wellington and up into its grimy
guts, they certainly got more than they bargained for. What
they got was more than just a couple of tags haphazardly sprayed
onto the walls. What they got was a nine-story, living, breathing
work of art. The people who have been living in the Wellington
sure have been keeping themselves busy. Doors throughout the
building are painted like playing cards; a number of walls
on most floors are painted with poetry about war and with
murals of bombers. And then there are the Christmas rooms,
where average-size pine trees sit rotting next to large, homemade
crosses. There are collages lying around, pictures cut out
from magazines, and a calendar.
time we were in here, it was marked off ’til the day we got
here,” Shawn says of the calendar, which we find again in
what resembles an office, decorated with discarded items,
littered with disassembled cell phones, CB radios, and boom
boxes, boxes of cereal nailed to the wall. The calendar is
lying on a makeshift desk, and it is marked off up to that
very day. “He has perfected the art of homelessness,” says
Dan in awe.
elaborate scrawlings throughout the Wellington and in the
abandoned warehouses around the area are merely an added visual
bonus for Dan and Shawn. What they are really looking for
are pieces by established graffiti artists (such as the Playful
Maidens of Spray) that they can harvest and add to their collections,
which they store in their cubicles.
Shawn come prepared to detach graffiti in whatever form it
might come. They bring screwdrivers and drills in case they
need to detach a piece of wood, a sign, a door, or a decorated
bird house, they bring sprays to harden stickers faster and
they bring video cameras to document the tags and larger pieces
they have to leave behind.
in an over-air-conditioned office building, Shawn keeps a
desk behind an anonymous gray door. His office space is decorated
with an assortment of stickers, collages and tags he has collected
during his adventures through Albany’s abandoned relics. He
describes competing with Dan to find the right piece, always
wondering who is going to turn the corner to come face to
face with a unique tag to claim as his own.
me through security at a bustling downtown office building.
As he nods at coworkers, we loop through a maze of cubicles,
past printers and curious stares, to wind up at his desk,
which is spilling forth pieces that were once hung in the
most obscure places. They are now under the bright, fluorescent
lights of his office. As Dan begins to show them off, his
supervisor walks by and reminds him he is clocking overtime.
Dan bashfully reassures his boss he is aware and will make
up for it.
arguably more important things—like family obligations—haven’t
stopped Dan from focusing on finding the art he loves. “I
saw it on the Flickr site and knew I had to have it,” says
Dan about the time he left his sister’s graduation with a
backpack full of tools to go recover a piece of freshly installed
image of a urinal pasted over the gaping mouth of a model
on a Saratoga Racing billboard on New Scotland Avenue recently
drew the pair’s interest.
grabbed a garbage can out of an open bank to stand on to get
up there,” in the middle of the day, relates Dan. As it turned
out, the graffiti was too well attached. That doesn’t mean
that they have given up on it. Dan says they might go back
when they are less likely to draw attention.
also called the owners of buildings and billboards that have
been tagged and has been granted permission to take the pieces
down. “We were checking out this ‘block-of-the-year’ sign.
The back of it was all covered up with stickers and was weather-beaten.
This lady came out of her house and asked if we were taking
it down. We asked if she wanted us to, and she said, ‘Yeah!
We don’t want to look at the stickers anymore.’ So we thought,
‘Should we just pop this sign down real quick?’ But we don’t
know if its legal. We were thinking, ‘Well, if she wants us
to, we are helping the neighborhood now.’ But we didn’t take
other hand, there are others that say the last thing anyone
should do is take the graffiti down. In fact, the rules of
the urban-exploring community make it clear that no one should
take anything from the buildings they venture into. What rules,
you ask? The rules of a well-established worldwide community
of urban explorers, who document their love for the pursuit
through Internet postings on sites like infiltration.org,
where they post photo galleries of the places they visit.
exploring has gained popularity over the past few years, thanks
to shows on the Discovery Channel and MTV. The established
UE groups generally employ mottos that are very similar to
the Sierra Club’s: “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing
but footprints.” However, this is a bit of a contradiction
because, as Dan points out, the graffiti artists themselves
are breaking the rules of urban exploring by leaving graffiti
in the first place. Anyhow, becoming part of some Internet
fad was not what got Dan into risking his neck inside the
torn carcasses of these splintered giants.
he has only once been confronted by someone who didn’t want
graffiti taken down. “I had my backpack full of tools, and
I’m taking this thing down. And this couple walks up and asks,
‘What are you doing?’ I say, ‘What does it look like I’m doing?’
” He says he made it clear that he wasn’t taking the work
down because he wanted to destroy it, but rather because he
cherishes it. But the couple told him that the graffiti is
there for everyone, “Not just you.”
you see me doing this?” Dan says he responded. “I’m up here
with all these tools. Are you going to stop me?” The piece
is now part of Dan’s collection.
do the artists think about having fans so devoted that they
are risking life and limb to collect their works? Mr. Prvrt,
Dwell and Unit are asked that question during a break from
installing their current exhibit at the Albany Center Galleries.
In the middle of plastic sheets, spray-paint bottles, stencils
and pieces of scrap metal, Dwell explains why, exactly, he
displays his work in abandoned buildings. “It affects me personally
to see people with no homes, who live in these places, who
live under bridges. There are 800 abandoned buildings in this
really small town, and we talk about projects, about redoing
whole rooms in abandoned buildings, saying ‘This is someone’s
home,’ giving them this beautiful room in the middle of this
trashed-out building that no one is going to do shit with.”
adds that it also has a lot to do with the rush of exploration
and connecting with anyone else who has been through a space
that so few people actually get to see.
portion of it is leaving our marks behind. There are people
who call it their home, and there are state workers or people
like ourselves that find it exciting to explore this space
that is unlike anything else you will see.”
Mr. Prvrt, “I took a girl to an abandoned building for a date
and she loved it! It was one of the best dates I’ve ever been
subject of how they feel about admirers taking their work
down, these artists’ views are not so clear-cut. “To . . .
go back into the space like that and see our stuff is taken,
we wonder whether someone took it down because they didn’t
like it, or because they did,” says Mr. Prvrt. “If you see
something has disappeared, you wonder, ‘Why would they take
it?’ Was it a collector? Did someone that hated it take it
down? It comes down to those two things.”
dwell on it,” Dwell interjects, “it will drive you crazy.”
thought of meeting the artists behind the work that he is
obsessed with has been driving Dan a little bit crazy. The
Playful Maidens of Spray began their exhibition in the Albany
Center Galleries Aug. 8, and since then, Dan and Shawn have
visited it twice and observed Mr. Prvrt. “We were tempted
to go over and introduce ourselves at his show. I’m sure we
have more artwork than any of his friends. I’m sure he’s got
friends he hangs out with who aren’t big into the graffiti
thing and constantly are like, ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever, man.’
It just blows up that part of that friendship. I guarantee
he’s got a friend like that, and then he’s got us, who are,
like, ‘These things are sick!’ And we don’t even know who
his devotion to Mr. Prvrt’s art, despite knowing how awkward
a meeting might be, Dan says he isn’t sure how comfortable
he would be, if he were a graffiti artist, knowing someone
was taking down his work after he put it up.
and Mr. Prvrt say they dealt with similar situations with
old-school taggers whose pieces they ended up taking down.
They both say they let the artists know they had their pieces
and offered something in exchange. “I wanted to meet him,”
says Prvrt of a graffiti artist he admired. “I wasn’t sure
if he was gonna hit me or not, but I greeted him with a piece
of artwork and a shake of the hand.”
explains that he took down a piece by a well-known artist
and e-mailed him to let him know he had it and to ask if he
had any special instructions.
of us have taken a piece of it,” says Mr. Prvrt.
the Playful Maidens of Spray keep their identities secret
(they wear masks and bandanas to interviews and showings),
Prvrt muses, “We probably know these guys. This is Smalbany;
we know everyone. We are around. People know us. They don’t
know we do this, but we are the people who wait on you, who
bag your groceries, who serve you coffee.”
considered other ways of getting in touch with Mr. Prvrt,
such as leaving a picture of Prvrt’s works that he has collected
with his phone number on it at the gallery. But that isn’t
the way he thought he would meet Prvrt. “Maybe they’ll come
to my work to see all the crap, but I’m not trying to get
up on his junk,” he insists. “I figured if I was going to
meet him, it would happen in a building. He’d have a piece
of art in his hand and I’d be, like, ‘Do you want to install
it, or do you want to just hand it over?’ ” As Dan sees it,
he is saving art that will inevitably be destroyed.
out of their way as Dan and Shawn will go to find a piece,
it seems people who dislike it will go to similar distances.
On a summer Saturday, they explore the sweltering abandoned
CW warehouse for hours. We walk through once-functioning room-sized
refrigerator units, offices that look like they were deserted
in minutes, and rooms with paint that hangs like stalactites.
We read epic poetry attacking someone named Joe scrawled throughout
the building (“Joe stinks so bad his mom won’t do him. Joe
is a loser”), written by someone named Frank, who has a whole
floor dedicated to himself—Frankadelphia, Frank York City,
Frankolina—and to keeping Joe out (“No Joes allowed”). Then
we squirm under a bendable metal door, out of the suffocating
rot and into the humid air. Dan leads us across the concrete
outline of the building out onto the railroad tracks that
cross the Hudson. The tracks creak and nails pop up like tripwire;
then, quickly, the rattle of a train comes up behind us and
it looks like Dan has made his way out of the train’s wake
just in time. For the first instance in our explorations,
Dan looks worried, shaken. Someone looks back and asks, “You
believe it!” says Dan like a disappointed kid. “He didn’t
pull his whistle.”
again quickly, he is focused on our destination. “There are
some tags over here.” He guides us back across the tracks
to a green railroad box, shaded by trees, at the beginning
of the railroad bridge. A more obscure spot in Albany probably
does not exist.
is what happens if we leave them here,” says Dan dejectedly,
pointing to the intricately designed stickers that cover the
box. The stickers have been slashed repeatedly, defaced, left
tattered and convulsing in the wind.
in the Wellington, Dan and Shawn push open the door at the
top of a rickety stairway. The normally dark, dank stairwell
is flooded with light, and we all cover our eyes. Dan immediately
heads to the side of the building, and looks over the edge.
He explains that on his first visit he was nervous about the
height, but now he says, “I make sure to look over the sides
to see if anyone tagged the building.” As our eyes adjust
to the light, the view takes shape, and it is overwhelming:
the Capital, the Pepsi Arena, the Egg, the Hudson River and
beyond. The sun beats down hard, seemingly melting the tar
roof under our feet. We all reach for our water bottles.
approaches a rickety silver metal structure that towers perilously
over the roof. He opens a hatch on its side, and then it becomes
apparent: There is farther to go, more to explore. “This is
awesome. I have to check this out!” says Shawn as he sticks
his head up into the belly of the metallic contraption. We
all look at each other, realizing that in today’s searing
heat, this thing is effectively an oven.
steps back out, smiles, and says, “I’ll check that out next