Meet the ‘tunnel rat’ who turns trespassing into an artform

Sydney-based urban explorer Ben, who goes under the name GKHZ. Photo: @gkhz Ben travels the world photographing tunnels and scaling bridges and rooftops. Photo: @gkhz
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A close encounter underground. Photo: @gkhz

The high school graduate is a “tunnel rat” or “urban explorer”. Photo: @gkhz

Perched on the edge of a skyscraper high above Tokyo’s man-made jungle, Ben* precariously leans over the massive drop to focus his lens on the rambling cityscape below. At the age of 17 and with his HSC exams only just behind him, his trip to photograph urban Japan is an unusual way to celebrate Schoolies.

Going by the name of GKHZ, the high school graduate is a “tunnel rat” or “urban explorer” who often trespasses in order to reveal the beauty of the hidden spaces we unknowingly pass every day. One of what he estimates to be about 40 urban explorers in Sydney, Ben spends his nights and trips abroad roaming deserted tunnells, buildings and edifices, often evading the authorities to do so.

He started exploring in year 11 when, uninterested in drinking with his peers, he began wandering the city streets with his camera to record a different form of nightlife.

“I realised maybe I could explore, find alleyways, find entry points to tunnels. All the police attention was on clubs, no-one would think about looking at a tunnel at 3am,” he says.

He soon got to know a small band of explorers as he documented the “platties” (platforms) and “bandos” (abandoned places) he found. The more he saw, the more he realised that he was able to expose a world few have accessed.

“People are walking on top of abandoned air-raid shelters, abandoned rivers, abandoned platforms under Central station. No-one had an idea of what was beneath them.

“My objective was to show people another side to Sydney, once I did that, I went to New York, I went to Japan.”

His images of darkened tunnel intersections, blurred trains and views from the tops of bridges have built up an international reputation. His @GKHZ Instagram account has nearly 30,000 followers and he has shot work for  major companies and record labels. With no plans to head to university, he is in talks with a corporation that, he says, might shape the next decade of his photographic life.

Exploring means the teen has taken risks that many would never dream of – much to the dismay of his mother who “hates it” and his father who “doesn’t encourage it.”

“The first time I went, I ran off the platform at King’s Cross and I nearly got hit by a train,” he remembers. “It was a reality check: ‘You’re pretty stupid, you could have died’.”

He has learnt to jump fences, sprint from security guards, dodge motion and CCTV sensors and escape before rail rescue crews and police close in.

One exploration in the airport tunnel took an unexpected turn when police came from both sides, blocking him and his friend in. “We got away. The adrenaline was crazy.”

But perhaps his hairiest experience was in New York City, where the teen illegally scaled Manhattan Bridge in the dead of a -11C night.

“That’s when I discovered I was afraid of heights. It was the scariest thing I have ever done, as soon as I got to the top, I wanted to get off.” With no gloves, jetlag and 10kg of camera kit on his back, “any wrong move, a slip and you’re gone.”

In 2009, two urban explorers died in a stormwater drain in Lurline Bay, while in 2012, a graffiti artist was killed after being hit by a train at Lewisham station. For Ben, the chase is not about leaving a mark on the structures but creating memories for himself.

“I never feel like I have to prove something. To me, it’s a bridge, it’s a structure, and some places are harder to get into. In all honesty, it’s about memories.”

The subversive pastime, reminiscent of that of psycho-geographers and, more recently, the work of graffiti artists in urbanscapes, is a long way from the seven years he spent at a boarding school in Dharamsala, India, where he learnt to meditate daily.

With heightened security around the tunnel system in the wake of the Martin Place siege and international terrorist threats, the days are numbered for Sydney’s explorers, Ben believes.

“They’re red hot, people aren’t doing it so much anymore. A year ago, if you were in a tunnel and security saw you on camera, they’d take 20 minutes to respond. Now they know what you’re doing, they come straight for you,” he says.

He has heard of fines of between $150 and $600 for those who are caught. As a minor, he has so far avoided running the risk of criminal convictions, but his birthday this week will bring his short-lived career as a tunnel rat to an abrupt end.

“As soon as I’m 18, I will quit, that’s it. I’ll use other forms of photography that don’t require illegal activity.”

*Not his real name

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