Photo of Ninjalicious (Jeff Chapman) by Derek Wuenschirs
by William Bryce George
The street was empty, the night almost still. The condominium tower loomed above me, black against the lambent, overcast sky. It looked vast and abandoned, but of course it was only incomplete; no one had moved in yet. I wanted to climb its thirty-odd storeys, and look around at my city, Vancouver, from its rooftop. I had seen a security guard in his car on the opposite side of the building, but I decided to take my chances. I hopped—stepped, really—over the fence from some neighboring stairs, and walked with brisk composure to the nearest lighted stairwell leading down to the underground parkade, from which I hoped to find another stairwell leading up. My palms were sweaty, my extremities tingling, and I instantly needed to pee. I took some deep breaths and reminded myself that I wasn’t doing anything bad, that my only crime was curiosity.
I had been doing this sort of thing—urban exploration, infiltration, and recreational trespass—for about a year. I had got inside hotel pools, tunnels, attics, abandoned hospital wings, staff-only areas, boiler rooms, storm drains, and several other construction sites. But it was still scary and exhilarating.
My introduction to urban exploration had come from Access All Areas, a user’s guide to the hobby by the Toronto-based zinemaker Ninjalicious (aka Jeff Chapman), best known for his groundbreaking publication Infiltration: the zine about going places you’re not supposed to go. Chapman produced twenty-five issues between 1996 and 2005, when he passed away at age thirty-one from cancer. He’s largely considered one of the founders of an online urban exploration community that still thrives (see, for example, the zine’s web archive, infiltration.org, and Urban Exploration Resource, uer.ca).
Access All Areas and Infiltration were a revelation for me, not only for Ninjalicious’s well-crafted prose, his enthusiasm, or his humor, but the sheer joyous innocence that he exudes. It’s clear from his stories that he simply loves turning doorknobs, peering into dark rooms, squeezing into crawlspaces, climbing around on things, and figuring out how to get from here to there, or how this connects to that. Steam tunnels and machine rooms that only a film location scout could love he describes as “valve paradise” and “pipey goodness.” The city, in his writings, becomes a playground and a beguiling labyrinth. He too, like all of us, gets some thrill of excitement at evading the powers that be, but his primary motivation is not to defy authority, and his default method is not to skulk or sneak like a ninja.
In Issue #5 of Broken Pencil, we excerpted Ninjalicious’ Infiltration guide to breaking into Toronto’s Royal York Hotel.
In Issue 10, he admits, “I’m caught all the time…. I just smile, shrug, and leave, in a way that says, ‘Ya got me, I’ve learned my lesson, goodbye.’ I humbly walk, not run, away and live to explore another day.” In Issue 24, he climbs the dome of Maple Leaf Gardens in broad daylight: “I was fairly confident that no fewer than a thousand people were watching me intently from the high-rises that encircle the Gardens, but this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Zipping up my coat and pretending to speak something into my phone for the benefit of my imagined audience, I grabbed the rungs and began to climb.” And in Issue 12, he gains access to the TTR offices at Union Station by simply waiting outside a locked door for ten minutes, until “an employee finally emerged, and I prepared to accept the open door from him. ‘Can I help you?’ he asked, clearly employing the phrase in its ‘can-I-hinder-you’ sense. I said, ‘I’m supposed to be meeting someone on the fourth floor.’ ‘How do I know you’re supposed to be in here? I mean, you don’t look bad or anything …’ I laughed and said, “Thank you, you neither.’ He smiled, weakening. ‘Okay, go ahead.’”
I think the average person has to overcome a great deal of inner resistance even to pass through a door marked “Employees Only” or “No Public Access.” We all silently acknowledge that, if we have no business someplace, we must be up to no good. But it was this assumption, ingrained by my superego into my very muscles and nerves that I was now consciously trying to fight. I had come to view urban exploration not only as a fun way to see cool things, a kind of extreme local tourism, but also as a practice like zen, or what Alan Watts called a way of liberation: a way to see through and shake off some of society’s more useless constraints. The painter Fairfield Porter once said that if you are arrogant, to sign your paintings is arrogant, and so is to leave your paintings unsigned; if you are not arrogant, signing your paintings is not arrogant, nor is leaving your paintings unsigned. The same is true for going places you’re not supposed to go: If you are innocent, even trespassing is an innocent pastime.
“You should try to behave like a stereotypical Texan,” Ninjalicious says in Access All Areas. “Smile and wave at people who make even tentative eye contact. Speak loudly and laugh frequently. Make it clear as can be that you’re not trying to hide or go unnoticed, but that you want to share all that you have to offer with the world.” This is not only a good strategy when exploring places you technically have no business to be. It’s also a wonderful way to go through life.
I saw the security guard, and he saw me, as soon as I entered the parkade. I waved, smiled, called “Hi there,” and went over to talk to him. I told him the truth: that I’d hopped the fence, hoping to get a view from the roof. He was more sadly puzzled than officious or irate.
“You don’t seem like a troublemaker,” he said.
William Bryce George lives with his wife and pets in Vancouver, where he reads and writes. He is the author of a novel, _Mass Schizophrenia_ (massschizophrenia.com).
You can order every issue of Infiltration Zine and the accompanying book Access All Areas by visiting infiltration.org.