The Outlaw Instagrammers of New York City

By
Photo: humzadeas/Instagram

The 17-year-old photographer Humza Deas spends so much time exploring the air above New York City that he’s begun to run into people he knows up there. On a recent balmy night he strolled across the Manhattan Bridge, snapping long exposures of FDR Drive from the pedestrian walkway. He was descending into Chinatown when, about 50 feet over Henry Street, his name wafted out.

Hum-zah DEEEEEEEEEEEZ!

Two backpack-laden figures ran laughing over the rooftop of a six-story building across the street, just a few feet above the walkway. They scurried up a ladder to an empty billboard and disappeared around its far side. “I think that was Last Suspect,” Deas told Junior, a friend who was carrying his tripod. “I can tell by the way he dresses.” Last Suspect is a well-known New York City street photographer, part of a community that specializes in combining picture-taking with urban exploration: a tribe of outlaw Instagrammers for whom, every night, New York City becomes a playground and battlefield. They compete to capture the gritty cityscape from unexpected — often aerial — angles while garnering as many likes and follows as possible in the process.  (Like Deas, Last Suspect is an elite of the group, called a “K,” which means he has more than 10,000 followers on Instagram so the last three digits of his follower count are replaced with the letter K.) They can be spotted by the distinctive humpback of their padded photographers’ backpacks and colorful lightweight Nikes, equally effective at gripping rusty ladder rungs and looking cool in a photograph hanging over the city from the edge of a skyscraper’s roof, as if all of Manhattan were just an ottoman.  For them, photography is more performance — or competition — than visual art.

There has long been a subculture of so-called “urban explorers” who have made a game of accessing off-limits places. But Deas and the other Instagrammers distinguish themselves from these mostly older, more cerebral trespassers. “They'll go to the top of the bridge and touch it and be like, Wow, this architecture!,” Deas says, a little dismissively. Urban explorers take photos mainly to document that they’ve been there, while for Deas the image is the whole point.  The outlaw Instagrammers have more in common with graffiti artists, another subculture of underground creatives who make their work in the cracks of the urban landscape. Many Instagrammers go by enigmatic handles that would look good scrawled on the side of a subway car, like Novess, Black_soap, Heavy Minds, and 13thwitness, aka Tim McGurr, an unofficial godfather of the scene. But the outlaw Instagrammers are better-positioned to thrive in post-Giuliani, post-Facebook New York than old-school graffiti writers: transgressive enough to be cool, but innocuous enough to amass a huge following without getting hunted down by the NYPD.

Even as individual Instagrammers have gained tens of thousands of followers, the community remained largely out of the mainstream, until last month, when Deas nearly blew up the scene. It started July 22, the morning some then-unknown party swapped the American flags on the Brooklyn Bridge with big white flags. (A pair of German artists, Mischa Leinkauf and Matthias Wermke claimed credit for the stunt this week and offered convincing proof to the New York Times.)

The best outlaw instagrammers have a specialty that sets them apart, and Deas’s is climbing bridges. In one photo he balances at night on a suspension cable at the top of the Manhattan Bridge as cars streak below him. In another, a friend sits on the sloping steel beam of what appears to be the Queensboro Bridge, his face lit by the glow of a smartphone he’s staring into. And so Deas woke the morning of the white-flag incident to find his Samsung pinging with Instagram notifications, texts, and emails from fans and friends who thought he’d officially staked his claim up there. I think this guy did the white flag. Nice job, man! Was it you? He posted a note on Instagram to his more than 22,000 followers, declaring that he did not do the bridge. Then his friend Neil, a barber who cuts a WPIX camerman’s hair, told him the station was looking to interview someone about bridge-climbing and Deas, intending to clear his name, instead got himself in trouble.

In the resulting video, Deas walks the Manhattan Bridge with a reporter while spilling the secrets of the outlaw Instagrammer. He explains that the best time to climb bridges is in the very early morning, right after they shut the lights off. He even drags Last Suspect into it: Last Suspect had claimed responsibility for the flags as a joke, and Deas tut-tuts that "you shouldn't take credit for someone else's work," over a screenshot of Last Suspect’s Instagram page. When the report aired, other outlaw Instagrammers were horrified. Deas received death threats, and Last Suspect proposed a Humza Deas “boycott”.

Even sympathetic outlaw Instagrammers thought Deas was trying to pull up the ladder after climbing it to fame. “It just awoke New York to like, there are these kids, these grown-ass men, even women up on our bridges and our roofs so we gotta watch out,” says a 17-year-old Instagrammer who goes by Kostennn (51k followers). “Of course Humza wouldn’t care because he’s already hit everything so he’s just like, Whatever I’m gonna do the interview. And that made us mad because it’s like, Wow, that’s pretty selfish. What if I wanted to hit the bridge this Friday night?”

Deas is a handsome kid with a babyface and a marathon runner’s frame clad head to toe in cutting-edge streetwear. (Unless he’s trying to sneak onto the roof a Times Square hotel, in which case he’ll dress up a bit in some nice pants and a button-down and Stacy Adams pinto shoes since, as a young black man, he’s likely going to get a second look from the doorman at a luxury hotel.) He’s has been skateboarding since he was 8 years old and is good enough at that to be sponsored by the Belief Skateshop in Queens, where he grew up before moving to Bushwick with his aunt. He got the idea to start climbing earlier this year, while watching a viral video of two Russian daredevils scaling the 2,073-foot Shanghai Tower, still under construction in China. The first-person video was so intense that his hands began to sweat as he held his phone. “I was like, damn, this is so dangerous,” he says. Then he saw the otherworldly scenes they captured while clinging to a crane at the top, where skyscrapers poked out of a sea of clouds. “I’m thinking, Hey, they’re in China, they’re not in New York,” Deas says. “I can show New York this kind of photography.”  So one night in April, Deas climbed the Brooklyn-side tower of the Williamsburg Bridge. He found it was easier than he’d expected. It took just 15 minutes, although, having learned something from the WPIX fiasco, he swears me to secrecy when he tells me how he did it. The resulting photos were more popular than the well-composed shots of subway tracks and DUMBO sunsets he had posted in the eight months he’d been on Instagram. He then scaled the Queensboro Bridge, Hell Gate Bridge, and the Manhattan Bridge. He hit the Williamsburg bridge six more times, late at night or early in the morning, often with a small crew of fellow photographers. At the same time he began hitting skyscrapers.

His Instagram feed over the past four months seems to belong to someone who bounds across Manhattan from rooftop to rooftop, rarely touching the sidewalk. Some Instagrammers use Google maps to scan the city for juicy targets but Deas’s method is largely spontaneous. If he comes across a space in the city he thinks would look good from above, he’ll hit the roof of a nearby building after looping around the block a few times to get a sense of security.

Deas’s rising notoriety has made climbing a bridge a sort of badge of honor among other Instagrammers. If you click around certain accounts — like night.shift demidism and 7expresstrain — you’ll see photos from the tops of New York’s bridges have proliferated like selfies. Deas was recently up on the Randalls Island tower of the Hell Gate Bridge with some friends when another group of Instagrammers in town from San Francisco climbed up. After a brief moment of panic — each group thinking they’d just been busted — they realized they knew each other and ended up clambering over the beams to Queens together.

If he does get caught, Deas’s only hope is to talk his way out of trouble, which has worked out so far — he’s never been arrested. The building manager and his teenage son once caught Deas photographing a girl against the sunset on the roof of the 53-story Eventi skyscraper on Seventh Avenue. As they waited for the cops, Deas chatted with the son about high school and the upcoming New York State Regents exam, which, Deas casually mentioned, he had to take the next day. When the cops came the guy decided not to press charges.

“I knew he wouldn't arrest me because I had a test in the morning,” Deas says with a grin. “He's a dad.”

But Deas has been keeping a lower profile since the white-flag incident. He’s convinced that he’s now on the NYPD’s radar because of the WPIX interview, and when a cop ambles past on the Manhattan Bridge, he and Junior visibly tense up until he’s out of sight. The blue lights glitter tantalizingly along the suspension cables above. But tonight Deas is heading to Long Island City to shoot the graffiti mecca 5 Pointz before it’s demolished this month. As if to make up for being physically grounded, Deas maintains his high-flying swagger until the moment he disappears into the subway at Canal Street. “If I really wanted to, I could do it,” he says, of scaling the bridge even in the face of ramped-up security. “The NYPD is not superhuman.”