Breaking and entering, trespassing, and vandalism were an everyday part of Italian photographer Marco Mendia’s life for nearly a decade. Before he became his own boss and founded a creative studio in Milan, Mendia ran with teenage graffitos who used Europe’s metro systems as subterranean playgrounds to explore, take pictures, and practice spray-can calligraphy. From the mid aughts through 2015 they ran the tunnels, mostly without incident.
He's been in the graffiti scene since he was 14 years old, but by the time he turned 16, Mendia was more interested in capturing the unique places he saw than writing his name on walls. “Every place has something particular,” he told VICE. “In Vienna, the tunnels are so clean and well-illuminated”—perfect for both graffiti writing and photography. His favorite city was Paris. “I really like Parisian tunnels. I love the shape. They are really large, it’s huge in there. You can turn right and left, it’s amazing. And they are not ruined by Miamification.”
In 2015, Mendia was arrested in Milan, and then again in Paris while shooting. “While I was in jail, I lost faith for a moment,” he said. “When I was younger I enjoyed escaping from the police. As I grew up it became less fun.” Now 28, some of Mendia's friends are still tagging. Others have moved on to other creative careers in the art and fashion world.
He decided to self-publish his photographs to preserve the fleeting recklessness of their youth and the atmosphere before the graffiti world came to be dominated by Instagram. “Once, there was something secret about a spot. But social media changed the game," he said. "People are trying to steal the best spot now." A secluded subway tunnel or abandoned warehouse used to be a closely-guarded secret to be shared with close friends. Now graffiti artists all go to the same spots they find online. “From an underground point of view, of course it’s worse now,” he said. “When you can see everything, it becomes mainstream.”
Below are some of Mendia's best photos. He captioned a few of them for context, but they’re not hashtagged or geo-filtered, and he didn’t say exactly where they were taken, so they’re one-of-a-kind.
"I want to dedicate this interview to the mates who shared with me best and worst moments in the graffiti game," Mendia added. "AVIDO - 031, ZOOW24m, and HERS & SANCHO. Best buddies ever."
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.