Urban Exploration: Discovering the Underground Bay


John Law demonstrates how he scales the Tribune Tower in orderto fix its LED lights on the outside in Oakland, Calif. on Thursday April 14, 2016. Law works at the tower, fixing its many clocks and their LED lights. This isn’t part of his usual urban exploring adventures but it does satisfy the thrill of doing something as exciting. (Aleah Fajardo/ Xpress)

By: Tessa Murphy

The voice on the phone wasn’t dark or mysterious like you’d expect from the man giving the where and when for an illicit activity we knew very little about.  John Law sounds like a somewhat distractible old-time hippie, a rough quality working its way into his California accent.  We were meeting at Oakland’s Tribune Tower, where Law keeps an office, but he wouldn’t give any specifics about where we were heading.  All we knew is that we’d be on one of Law’s urban exploration expeditions.

Urban exploration is the act of venturing into abandoned or uninhabited man-made structures like houses, factories, or – in our case – tunnels.  Law calls it “looking for negative spaces and finding out how to get into them.”  He’s conducted these expeditions all over the Bay Area and joined others throughout the world.

The day arrives.  We climb past the modernized lower floors of the Tribune Tower into the unrenovated top, untouched since the building’s origins in the 1920s.  Old school rock music plays faintly from above, gathering the weirdness of this transition in its notes.

John Law’s name is on his office door.  It looks very professional – opaque, lined glass, a deep-colored wood frame, tall and thin and altogether stately.  Bold, black, capital letters: John Law.
The door itself is under a peeling metal ladder and next to a small USPS box marked “soft porn :)” and a picket sign with a picture of an angry man holding a glass of whiskey-colored liquid and no words.  The wooden floorboards are scuffed like a well-loved dance floor.

John Law’s office is mostly purple, and what isn’t purple is lined with a motely conglomerate of books.  To accommodate the sloped copper roof of these highest floors of the Tribune Tower, the whole office seems to slump in on itself.  Photos and newspaper clippings and a bullet-riddled California license plate “CAR HUNT” bear down from the walls.  Bookshelves and filing cabinets tuck into the spaces between sloping square pillars, and a ragged black Wild West-style “San Francisco Suicide Club” pillow slouches on a spare chair.

Law sits among it all, tucked into the clamor like the filing cabinets.  His hair is long and grey, thoroughly adjusted to his age but not to his demographic.  He wears a salmon pink hoodie and reading glasses, and looks up from his large-screened iMac to greet us as we stand in the doorway.

Law recommends we get breakfast and talk about our plans while we wait for the tide to recede from our tunnel.  We all climb into one of the cars, following Law’s directions to a spot he knows in the area.

We arrive at a little diner in another city and park out back.  It’s a local joint, homey with green vinyl booths and framed photographs of old movie stars on the wall.  Families eat here, friends get together for a mid-week chat.  Our group is neither of these.

Over French toast and omelets, we took in anecdotes of Law’s life.

John Law walks inside a tunnel that he occasionally uses to explore for its graffiti art, somewhere in the Bay Area  on Thursday April 14, 2016. Law asked not to use the name of the destination due to his urban exploring morals and ethics of keeping the places he explores, a secret. (Aleah Fajardo/ Xpress)
John Law walks inside a tunnel that he occasionally uses to explore for its graffiti art, somewhere in the Bay Area on Thursday April 14, 2016. Law asked not to use the name of the destination due to his urban exploring morals and ethics of keeping the places he explores, a secret. (Aleah Fajardo/ Xpress)

He had been an early member of the Suicide Club, an underground society in San Francisco in the 1970s.  Despite having membership cards, statuses, and official t-shirts, the Suicide Club was not an organization.  It was a thriving animal: a leaderless confederate that rearranged its shape with an unspoken, human-centric flow, a bridge between the personal freedom of the Summer of Love and the dark countercultures of the 1980s.  It explored the intersection between illegality and morality, challenging the boundaries society sets upon itself.  It took the prime of high society and forced it into the shape of the scraps, the wanderers, the ruleless.  It upset prim tourists on cable cars with the brazen form of the human body, it held evening gowns above damp sewer floors, it crowded groups of hippies into a Nazi bar.

Its membership card read:
“The Bearer: has agreed to get all worldly affairs in order, to enter into the world of chaos, cacophony & dark saturnalia, to live each day as if it were the last, and is a member in good standing of the Suicide Club”

The Suicide Club has been credited as the first modern urban exploration society.

But its events were never intentionally destructive.  In fact, Burning Man’s “leave no trace” adage comes directly from one of the Suicide Club’s unofficial mantras.  The club left its mark in other ways: it imprinted the unusual and obscene on the minds of outsiders, tasking those around it to question which boundaries in their lives were artificial.  While many of its events were illegal, Suicide Club members upheld a strict moral code that guided them through their activities.

“There’s always that thrill of doing something you’re not supposed to do,” Law says later.  “But it’s not immoral.  Who the fuck cares?  I’m in a tunnel.”

We have another short drive after breakfast, parking behind a single other car on the side of the road.  We walk a little ways, climbing down a use-worn path to the wide entrance of a concrete tunnel.

Inside, the tunnel flows with ankle-deep mountain water, chilling our feet to a numb buzz.  Art reclaims the inhuman concrete walls, and we turn our flashlights on to see as we pass through the sunlight of the tunnel’s entrance.  We soon round a bend and our path falls away into darkness and the rushing sound of the water.

Timelessness overtakes us.  The tunnel’s bend seals it from the day outside, and our own darting lights recreate the world underground.  We step carefully at first, unsure where algae would find life and slide us to our knees in the icy water, or where the tunnel’s floor would leap up or fall away.  This world feels separate from our own, and to navigate its sanctuary we grant it our cautious respect.

John Law goes inside a tunnel that he occasionally uses to explore for its graffiti art, somewhere in the Bay Area  on Thursday April 14, 2016. Law asked not to use the name of the destination due to his urban exploring morals and ethics of keeping the places he explores, a secret. (Aleah Fajardo/ Xpress)
John Law goes inside a tunnel that he occasionally uses to explore for its graffiti art, somewhere in the Bay Area on Thursday April 14, 2016. Law asked not to use the name of the destination due to his urban exploring morals and ethics of keeping the places he explores, a secret. (Aleah Fajardo/ Xpress)

We stop frequently, Law pointing out the paintings on the walls that he likes.  He hasn’t been through this tunnel in about six months, and he’s hoping there will be new canvases, adorned with a stylized “2016.”  But the painting of this tunnel seems to have trickled this rainy winter, and we don’t find any.

Some stretches of wall bear the weight of thoughtless graffiti, first-time spray painters who scream their presence to this silent world.  Deeper in the tunnel the art is slower, beautiful sweeps forming words and pictures that whisper in the circles of our lights.

It seems remarkable that so many artists chose this hidden place for hours of creation.  The art down here belongs to these people alone: the ones who duck into city secrets and find themselves in this lost, unseen underground.

“That’s the great thing about the world,” Law says over the static of the water and our throbbing echoes.  “There’s all kinds of shit you don’t see.”

The tunnel morphs through the years as new pieces are pasted haphazardly to the old.  Sometimes it stands tall, proud, its floor flattened like our own anonymous runway.  Other times it broadens, its base rounding to cup its running flow of water and force us down to the stronger current.

It doesn’t feel like day or night.  I have no sense for how long ago we’d entered the tunnel, and the unbroken darkness ahead suggests nothing of its end.  The pressures of the world above fall away, and this endless tunnel becomes heart, head, and home.

“It’s like a different world,” Law rumbles over the echoes.  His tone is soft, almost affectionate.  “The feel is different.  The air is different.”  While he had fit into his cluttered purple office at the top of the Tribune Tower like a Jenga piece in a neatly stacked game, Law widens here.  He strides, taking the tunnel with him, perusing its walls like a rich man in an art gallery.
Law stops, stands back to face one of the walls, and shines his flashlight over the painting on it.  “Please reincarnate me as poison oak,” a creature begs from under the beam, pierced by arrows in its slow crawl to death.  The artist who painted this was skilled, creating shadings and textures from spray paint on these rugged concrete walls.  Law takes it in for a moment, silent.  His face is serious but not guarded, a contemplative understanding in his eyes.  After a while he picks up his conversation again and we move on.

After an hour or so, sunlight appears ahead and Law hushes us.  The timelessness of the underground falls away and we stride back out into the day, the whole world glittering green around us.  Children laugh nearby, and a rocky stream runs towards us, beyond us, becoming the water we’d marinated in through the darkness.  It’s like waking up from a dream, the world still surreal from the depths of sleep.

We stand silently on the other side. It is still only late morning, and the people in the houses around us are just getting out for the day.

Law retreats into himself again out here.  He doesn’t seem uncomfortable, but neither is he the jovial purveyor of unseen places that he was in the tunnel.

Soon we step back to the muted comfort of our underground world.

The way back feels shorter. Our shoes slurp at the tunnel’s edge, but we’ve forgotten how to feel our feet.  Law speaks to each of us as we walk, one at a time.

I ask about the modern day Suicide Club-types, explorers who run silently around the Bay, uncovering its secrets or exposing its wrongness.

“They’re out there,” Law tells me. The serious will find them, or make something new. “The people who are rewarded are the ones who take the risk.”

All too soon, we round the bend back into the sunlight at the tunnel’s entrance. We stand outside for a moment, the end of our adventure abrupt, anti-climactic in a way.

The week after our expedition, I ran into Law at an unusual robotic art event in San Francisco. Police waited on motorcycles at the entrance to a roped-off parking lot tucked into an office complex in Hunter’s Point.  Members handed out earplugs and safety waivers on the way in. The crowd was dressed mostly in black, faux fur or bright leggings showing through the throng here and there.  This was not a normal Sunday night crowd.

Here Law strode, vested in neon, through the roped-off lot among the artists and their work. With him were more than a dozen others, similarly-clad, all waiting for nightfall to begin the show.  People knew him here.  Friends in the crowd leaned over the caution tape to hug him ‘hello,’ and the event’s organizers stood with him to talk.

Law is a particular kind of unusual. San Francisco is known for its weirdos, and a middle aged man in reading glasses doesn’t stand out.  But the Suicide Club spent five years zealously disrupting the Bay, and in many ways that energy is still fostered in this city’s thirst for the unconventional.

Law’s kind isn’t really going anywhere. Like the hidden spaces that creep silently around the Bay, the spirit of the Suicide Club is here, unseen.