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Riches Amid the Ruins

Two state workers spend their lunch breaks exploring Albany’s abandoned buildings and collecting graffiti some say isn’t theirs to take

By David King

Photos by Chris Shields

 

It’s 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.

As I 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 lunch breaks.

Dan doesn’t fool around. He doesn’t sugar-coat anything, and when talking about his obsession, he’s nothing short of driven.

“Other 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.

And when 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 building.

Dan and 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.

Amid 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.

Do 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.

You get 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.

“He’s 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?”

“She ain’t thrilled about it, bud,” he responds.

Believe it or not, Dan and Shawn are here for the pretty pictures.

It was 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.

It’s 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.

And while 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.

“Last 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.

The 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.

Dan and 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.

Underground, 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.

Dan leads 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.

Other, 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 graffiti.

A large 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.

“Shawn 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.

Dan has 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 it down.”

On the 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.

Urban 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.

Dan says 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.”

“Look, 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.

So what 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.”

Mr. Prvrt 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.

“A large 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.”

Adds 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 on.”

On the 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.”

“If you dwell on it,” Dwell interjects, “it will drive you crazy.”

The 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 he is!”

Despite 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.

But Dwell 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.”

Dwell 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.

“All of us have taken a piece of it,” says Mr. Prvrt.

Although 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.”

Dan has 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.

As 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 OK?”

“I can’t believe it!” says Dan like a disappointed kid. “He didn’t pull his whistle.”

Then, 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.

“This 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.

Back 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.

Shawn 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.

Shawn steps back out, smiles, and says, “I’ll check that out next time.”


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