1. Built environment
  2. Architecture & design
March 8, 2016updated 20 Jul 2021 2:31pm

Artistic parkour: Meet the artists using urban climbing to gain fresh perspectives on the city

By Daryl Mersom

For a group of urban climbers and photographers in Cleveland, Instagram has become the perfect tool for sharing their daring exploits with the world.

The social media platform has helped to spread the popularity of these occasionally illicit activities, in which climbers scale buildings without permission to gain fresh perspectives on their city. The activity is gaining its followers, and now photographers, writers, and artists are all searching for fresh vantage points of their city. 

Kevin Inthavong (@churkh) has been taking photographs of Cleveland from building tops for over two years now. He tells me about the hazards associated with urban climbing.

“Since I started, I have come close to death multiple times,” he says. “All it takes is an object to trip over, for you to lose your grip, a strong breeze, anxiety, or a surprise. About a month ago, I was almost hit by a train, it brushed against my backpack.

“There’s also the illegal aspect of urban climbing. If you get caught and the police officer is having a bad day, you can get hit with a few charges.”

It’s not only the police and security guards that are wary of this new way of capturing the city, Kevin tells me. “Some of the newer photographers and climbers are pretty young – imagine what their parents would say. I definitely got an earful when mine found out.”

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Urban climbing is particularly popular in New York, where there are more buildings that offer new perspectives on the city. But, thanks to Instagram and YouTube, has a global appeal. When I interview Daniel Beule (@grizzye), another Instagrammer and climber, he tells me that Russia is also known for its hard-core urban climbing scene.

It is testimony to the pervasiveness of urban climbing in the contemporary city that it has been depicted in music videos by artists such as Klangkarussell, documentary films like Channel 4’s “Don’t Look Down”, and clothing lookbooks.

And yet despite this popularity in the media, there is a lot of negativity directed towards urban climbers, much of which centres on the debate over individual responsibility. Many feel that, when you climb a building you are putting yourself at risk – and, as people in the Instagram comments section are keen to point out, your injuries or death may become another person’s issue. It is perhaps symptomatic of the collective hysteria on internet comments sections that liability is often considered before an individual’s safety.   

Asked about how people have responded to his work, Kevin says: “I usually comply when I get asked to remove content. And there are people that support me, or at least that like the photos. It’s all about how you take the criticism.”

When Daniel explains the humble origins of the Cleveland group, it’s clear that the impetus behind it was more artistic than anarchist. “It started with just a few people who had a passion for art and who loved to explore,” he says. “It eventually evolved into a larger community that is constantly pushing the limits of what we’re doing, and developing how we do it.” The climbers are first and foremost artists, despite the fact that they are engaging in hazardous activities.

However, there are differences between the work of the Cleveland photographers and that of graffiti artists, who we usually associate with this type of urban exploration and artwork. When we discuss graffiti artists, Kevin says, “The thought amazes me, how they carry so much spray paint to some of the place I have been.” In contrast, he works with only a Sony A6000, a mirrorless camera that can fit in to your pocket, and a tripod for long exposure shots.

Whether or not the public perceive the Cleveland group as artists, the striking and fresh views of the city their work offers is gaining the recognition it deserves on Instagram. 

All of the beautiful images in this piece used courtesy of Kevin Inthavong.

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