Risking Death for Graffiti
It’s been a while since we stuck our neck out to champion graffiti culture, and to be honest, it seems like the whole bubble of interestingness surrounding street art in general burst a long time ago. That said, Rick Indeo’s photography has caught our attention. By documenting a journey across Asia to tag every single subway system in the continent – digital keypads and guard dogs be damned – he’s managed to capture a mission of danger and adventure that feels like Style Wars, on some kind of synthetic variant of crack.
Check out Rick’s photos and read our interview below, wherein he talks about the dangers of international train painting and that time he went to jail in Japan.
This photo series is basically a travelogue of international danger of vandalism. How did you get started on this?
The work basically started in India. Some people came through while I was living in Mumbai, and I documented them painting the metro systems in Mumbai, New Delhi, and Calcutta. The missions were pretty hectic. Obviously as three white kids, we stood out. People were just curious as shit there.
We would be planning to climb a light post to get over a wall, and a crowd would form around us. We would just stand there and wait for them to get bored and leave, but they wouldn't. That was pretty frustrating.
Sometimes we would be scoping out a train yard and people from the area would try to pull the authority card on us, and tell us to leave... I'd have to make something up, like I was a National Geographic photographer and had permission from the governor of blah blah blah. Young people would know National Geographic and nod their heads and basically confirm my story. We would be left alone after that. In India, people are scared to fuck with a connected dude.
Anyway, once we were finally near the train yards, a lot of them had rifle towers and super crazy walls or fences. It was like breaking into a high security prison. They have a serious problem with terrorism in India, and no history of graffiti at all, so if we were spotted breaking into the yard we would most likely be shot.
It’s a crazy feeling knowing that a bullet could tear through your head at any moment, but that’s how the whole trip started. It was really fun, and I saw a story developing that I wanted to pursue.
For those readers who are unacquainted with the security measures installed within transit systems, they may not recognize all of the obstacles you have to get around in order to paint the trains that you wanted to paint. What are some of the trickier hurdles you face out there?
It varies from place to place. Most places will just have a tall fence with razor wire, cameras, and security guards doing the rounds. Other places are more tech-savvy, so they install laser sensors and motion detectors. One particular indoor train yard, in the center of Tokyo, had a keypad to unlock the door. It was the only way in, so we had to wait until a driver came by and entered in the code, we spotted him entering the code, and remembered it for access later on. Another place had sensors in the floor that would go off if you stepped in the wrong place. At some train yards in Japan, if you’re even close to the fence, a light flashes and a siren goes off while a voice tells you to back off, followed by a security guy running over. It’s pretty funny.
Sometimes there’s no way in, and you have to hide under a seat on the train at the end of service and then hop out into the train yard. You might even need to smash through a concrete wall with sledgehammers to get into a tunnel. There are so many preventative measures, but nothing stops vandals from getting to the trains. They will always adapt and get over.
Any close calls?
Not as many as you would think. I only go out there with intelligent people, so it almost always goes well. I can think of one time in Melbourne, though. My subject was painting a train that was in service and some Metro workers who were on a bridge spotted them.
They ran to come down to the station, and we jumped up onto the platform and into the train. That’s when we separated and changed our clothes up as best we could. The train sat there for 15 minutes, all the while the workers are trying to find the people they saw, but we had worn masks so they didn't really know who they were looking for. That 15 minutes felt like forever.
Where does your time in Japan fit into this? Can you talk about that?
You’re referring to my time in a Japanese jail, right? That had nothing to do with a metro mission actually. I was just with a subject on the street and he was drunk and did a tag in a shitty place. We got chased and got away but I was living in Japan, so they eventually tracked me down. I was held in a police holding cell for three months while they tried to get me to rat on the guy. I basically told them to get fucked and in the end they charged me for the crime.
Because they knew I took photos of graffiti, they felt I was promoting it and therefore was somehow guilty of it myself. They couldn't understand how a photographer could be interested in this, and that I was just following people to document it. They have a scary legal system over there.
What’s the goal, then? Why go through all this trouble to write your name on a train?
I don't know if there is a real goal. Think of it like a tense sporting match, where at that very moment you really want to win the game. There’s a brief rush when you’re victorious, but then you immediately start to think about the next game. There is no end to it. There is always a next game, and a next season, ahead.
I think it’s similar for my subjects. It’s pretty exciting. I mean, they’re kind of like an international spy travelling around, leading a double life, figuring out how to beat systems, breaking into a fortified area, performing their task, and escaping. It's always challenging, and I think doing this fulfills the need for true adventure that a lot of us have.
So why are you taking these photos? What will it all turn into?
I hope to capture the spirit of these artists and share it with the world. I think it could be inspiring if people can come to understand why they do it.
For more of Rick's work, check out his website.