A straw that purifies

Creationist penguins

R.I.P. “Ninjalicious” — the founder of urban exploration

About ten years ago I was in a Toronto bookshop and found a copy of Infiltration. Subtitled “the zine about going places you’re not supposed to go”, it was devoted to the escapades of the author, Jeff Chapman — or “Ninjalicious”, to use his nom de plume — as he explored the many off-limits areas in famous Toronto buildings such as the Royal York hotel, CN Tower, or St. Mike’s Hospital. In each issue, Chapman would pick a new target and infiltrate it — roaming curiously around, finding hilarious secrets, then describing it with effervescently witty delight. Chapman had the best prose of any zine author I’ve read anywhere. Many zinesters are clever, of course, but Chapman wrote with a 19th-century literary journalist’s attention to detail; nothing escaped his notice, from the relative fluffiness of the towels in executive lounges to the color of the rust pools in a mysterious, hangar-sized room buried below Toronto’s subway system.

It was like some postmodern version of Fodor’s. Indeed, that was Chapman’s genius: He approached the everyday world as if were filled with Narnia-like ‘ports to hidden worlds of mystery. As he realized, when you walk down the sidewalk in your city, there are rooms and places barely twenty feet to your right and left that are so restricted — being “private” areas of corporations, or even of public buildings — that they are effectively as remote as an island in Fiji. To travel to them is like voyaging to the summit of Mount Everest. And of course, in the 15 years since he started the zine, private companies have taken over more and more formerly public space — making Chapman’s quest not only funny and engaging but somewhat political.

A few years after he started publishing, he’d inspired so many other people to follow in his footsteps — in cities around the world — that he had singlehandedly created the “urban exploration” movement. Though urban exploration involves trespassing, Chapman took the same attitude towards it that the Boy Scouts take towards the wilderness, as Eye Magazine wrote about him last week:

He was evangelical about the virtue and value of exploring cities, preaching ethics that encouraged trespassing but forbade theft, vandalism and even littering. Urban explorers in the Ninjalicious mould believed in leaving no sign of their tourism through the inner workings of urban life, and in taking nothing with them but photographs and a new appreciation for the world around them.

He also founded a web site for urban exploration, and documented his ongoing journeys not only in the zine but in gorgeous color pictures on his blog. A couple of my favorite recent entries: The snow-covered roof of Toronto’s new art-college building; the enormous rooms under construction at the Eaton Center; and massive, corroded bins left behind in the abandoned Stelco factory.

Sadly, the reason Eye and I are writing about Chapman in the past tense is that he died of cancer last month — and he was only 31. He’d apparently been struggling with cancer for years, and it was during his treatments at St. Mike’s hospital in the early 90s that he became intrigued by the hidden areas in a supposedly public building.
Then he was off and running and thankfully never stopped. The world could use more brilliant obsessives like him.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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