In his urban explorations, Alex takes his camera and his tripod along, and if he climbs up a building, he also brings his lenses. He’ll improvise the rest on the spot, because he hates carrying luggage around.
The Deserted Places section has been on VICE for over one year and it’s always been a hit with our audience of squatter wannabes. At a certain point, it was quite difficult to find people to write new articles, but that was until Alex Iacob, aka the Reptilian, found our website. Alex is only 21 years old and he finds new ways to penetrate various guarded buildings in Bucharest, where he aims to reach as high as possible, in order to take panoramic shots of the city. Although those buildings seem impenetrable, he always finds a way to turn his urban explorations into a piece of cake, which bugs me. Dying to find out his secrets, I sequestrated him in the news room for an interview.
VICE: Hello, Alex, how did your whole urban explorations trip start?
Alex Iacob: Four years ago, I was cutting class with my class mates on the first day of the 12th grade. We had had enough of pub and we were looking for a new place to drink. We chose the Gabroveni Inn, where we knew there was a hole in the wall. In the same vein, then we went to Hotel Muntenia, somewhere behind the School of Architecture. Unfortunately, neither one of those places is accessible anymore. I was super curios, I saw myself as a tourist in my own city and I wanted to get to know it on a deeper level than most people. Only later have I realized that what I’m doing involves more than just having fun and I started doing research.
How do you get in the deserted places?
There are several kinds of buildings. In some of them, I go in through the door, and my problem is to avoid the junkies living there. In others, I actually have to climb the building. You need guts. Usually, I find a rope in the area or I bring some from home, I found some rope lost by the people who mount billboards on buildings. I tie it up to improvise an anchor and I get a grip on the building. You need to be quite fit, but not much – I don’t do much effort otherwise. Anyway, it’s the adrenalin that keeps me strong. It’s impossible to not get somewhere, especially since I’m risking to be seen by a passing police car in any minute I lose.
Aren’t you afraid?
I’m never going out alone – I have a group of friends with some cojones. If anybody asks, we answer: „Don’t worry, we’ll just do our job on the roof and we’ll leave.” The idea is to not alert them, but also to not give too many details regarding our activity, so they won’t be able to tell that we are just a group of students. You must keep your chin up.
Have you received threats?
No, what can happen is to have problems with the people living in the buildings. It happened on Calea Victoriei, next to the Police Station, when we wanted to start climbing to take pictures of the boulevard. We reached a garbage chute where we could see the street, we made some panoramas and a fiend tried another door thinking that it was the entrance to the terrace. A junkie came and said it was his apartment. When we went downstairs, the doorman stopped us at the door. Apparently, a communist lady had complained that we had tried to break into her apartment, that we had used her key somehow. We showed him the pictures, but she kept on saying that she had seen us trying to unlock her door. She called the police and, after they searched us, one of them told us: „Boys, if you keep on climbing on buildings, make sure to keep away from this kind of crazy people.”
Have you had any other experiences with the police?
A friend of mine was caught by an owner and by the phantom guard from Victoria Casino, who only comes once a week. They gave a statement to the police that he was supposedly trying to steal their air conditioning from the guard’s room, as there was anything else worth stealing. Poor guy, he was wrong to go there all alone. They interrogated him and he got a criminal file. I heard about that, so I went there with a friend to talk to the owner. We went in the way we knew how and waited for him in the dark. He was startled; he put his flash light on our faces and asked us who we were. We told him we were art students who wanted to organize and artistic event there. The guard wanted to deliver us to the police. The owner said: „No, no, go away, never come back”. We heard that, afterwards, the investigators came and fingerprinted the place - incredible. But we got away with it.
Any shot of adrenalin starts with a beer and some Unirea cognac.
How do you manage to get past the guards?
Lately, almost all the objectives have guards. They are private hands hired by people who can’t afford to keep the building, so they let it rot until they find a buyer. The guards are as good as their salaries. With some you can negotiate with a bottle of beer, a pack of cigarettes, others are cool and they’ll let you in if you are willing to show them the pictures afterwards. And, sometimes, if you talk to them, you risk alerting them and they’ll guard the place even better. That’s what happened with the IFMA tower in Giuleşti.
Was it difficult to go in?
It was the most difficult in my career. I had to climb from the street into the yard of an abandoned hall. From there, I had to jump over a 3m-high metal fence with barbed wire, that lead exactly to the yard of the IFMA tower, which was full of guards. I was lucky that all of them were on the other side. I was energized, I had drunk some Unirea. I had to climb up a water spout to the first floor, where one of the windows was broken, and there I climbed 20 floors on the stairs. Then, the drink kicked in and I was surprised myself to have been able to get out of there alive.
As far as I know, that tower has antennae from the secret service. You think you’re on their list?
There were many antennae there, just like on Casa Scânteii, but I didn’t touch those cameras or the alarms, I was there just to take some pictures. Although I guess they irradiated me some. I don’t think they put us on their list for such a small thing. Still, another urban explorer found out that two of the IPs following his blog were from the Ministry of Defense and he told me to take care because probably they were watching me too. I had two alternatives. I could stay The Reptilian, be a mystery, but I chose that everybody should know who I am and what I do – I give out pictures of myself, my name, the school I go to. I think it’s better when you’re in the open, people will have your back in case of need. I don’t rely on them to stand up for me. After all, I’m just documenting something for history; I’m making an archive of Bucharest.
Which was your most dangerous adventure?
At the Victoria Casino, last New Year’s Eve. I was only with Vlad Ursulan, and all the access ways I had used before had been blocked. We had to make an anchor. Vlad came with a multifunctional hoethat we threw over the wall above the entrance and we climbed up about six meters. Then we cut a wire and we climbed on the roof. It was full of glaze and we had to crawl on all fours. If I put my elbow down in the wrong way, we could have easily slipped. Another exhilarating experience at high altitude was when we wanted to climb on the sign of the Ciclop parking. To get to the stairs that lead to the roof, as it was the only way there, we walked for about three meters on a narrow handrail. We held on the grill and on a wire. There was a 20m free fall underneath us, to the inner yard.
How long does an exploration take?
The right moment to go in is about two hours before sunset. The light is different, there are other colors. And then you get the night which is fantastic if you have a view. I don’t spend all day there, because I’d get bored, but if I go there at night, I usually spend the night, so I’ll climb on a building of flats. There’s not much to do inside, only pictures with the flash, and I don’t like those. It depends on who I’m with, I’ll get a beer, an Unirea, something.
Which is your favorite building?
The Romtelecom building next to the Adevărul Palace, because the entrance is really weird. You must climb a fence and when you take the corner you can see the booths of the guards. If you are lucky, they’re inside and you go inside the Romtelecom through the door. If they’re outside, you’re screwed because you’ll make lots of noise because of the glass splinters on the ground. You must go when it’s cold. The inside is not exceptional, but the roof is the best, on the terrace, where you’ll break your legs running and you’ll see a superb view. At a certain moment, I even caught a seagull. I went in there at day time as well, through a toilet window, but they bricked that in afterwards.
It sounds like many of the places you visit get blocked after.
People get their information from the internet. They did the same with the IFMA tower. I had been there before and, when I was climbing up the water spout, I saw a metal plate welded where the window used to be. I was screwed. I have never got emails from the owners of the buildings, but only from people who wanted to explore with me. I’ll tell them all the same thing: I don’t do organized explorations. Otherwise, I’d do events with a microbus. I’m going with my friends, spontaneously, not with strange people.
What would you recommend to the beginners?
To visit the forts around Bucharest. They are around 18 on the belt road of the Capital, many of them accessible and some artillery batteriesare still there. The BGS headquarters are in one of them. All of them were connected between themselves and with the city center by tunnels, but those are not covered. That’s why I have a bigger passion for the center – when I’m in a tunnel, I want to feel the tramway making the catacomb tremble. But the forts are perfect for beginners. You get used to the dark and to the search, because they are hidden by little bushes, little trees and forests. You sharpen your senses and you learn how to use the adrenalin. You learn how to find a way to get inside a building, to lift up your head, to ask yourself questions.
You mention adrenalin a lot, is that what makes you continue with this hobby?
You obviously need adrenalin. All that trip, penetrating the building, it’s often more beautiful and more creative than what you’ll find up there. And if you have your friends with you, the disappointment fades away completely.