This Photographer Turns His Death-Defying Feats Into Stunning Crypto Art
Isaac Wright lives on the lookout for openings that other people ignore — popping open fire doors, climbing locked emergency stairs, and riding maintenance elevators long after everyone else has gone home. “The stuff we see is so incredible,” he tells me. “It feels like robbery that the rest of the world can’t see it.”
Wright, 27, is a photographer, artist, and urban explorer. His photos document a lifestyle of creative trespassing, shooting places and things he was never meant to see — at least not legally — from seemingly impossible points of view, looking down from skyscraper rooftops, the edges of suspension bridges, and high-altitude construction cranes, his feet often dangling over the world far below.
“Sometimes you’re just walking through the city and an opportunity presents itself,” he explains. “There’s a way in here. There’s a gap here.” You step through, he adds, and “you’re on your way to see something that’s going to change you forever.”
Urban exploration did exactly that for Wright, upending his life entirely — before saving it. His photos led to an interstate police manhunt, a lengthy jail term, and his personal possessions being confiscated — and, later, millions of dollars’ worth of digital photography sales. But we’ll get to that.
Wright is a Cincinnati native and a veteran of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, where he served as a paratrooper. When the Army relocated him to Fort Polk, Louisiana, he felt frustrated. He was an urban kid, raised in Over the Rhine — a historically Black neighborhood in Cincinnati — and Fort Polk felt like exile. He longed to get back to the concrete and steel of the city.
In the months leading up to his first act of urban exploration, Wright’s girlfriend began sending him links to Instagram accounts featuring photos taken from the roofs of high-rises in cities like New York, London, and Shanghai, a dream world of subway tunnels, abandoned mansions, and neon lights. Wright knew that Houston and New Orleans were just a short drive away. Think of all the buildings there, he imagined, lying alone in his cot at night, surrounded by forest. Think of all the roofs.
On a recreational break in May 2018, Wright drove to Houston. He had a new camera and a sense of obsession with seeing those sorts of forbidden sights for himself. Within a few hours, he chose his target: a new tower under construction. He slipped inside and began climbing, 10, 20, 50 stories, all the way to the top. Moonlight above and the quiet roar of roads below. He took out his camera.
Listening to Wright describe that experience, it’s clear he was motivated as much by self-care as by art or aesthetics. “I went up, and there was just this realm of peace,” he explains, sounding humbled. Sitting there above the noise and lights, the stress and trauma of his life disappeared. “It wasn’t about the rush or the adrenaline,” he says. “It was very calming. As a human in that experience, you feel so small, which I think is very important for us, to be reminded of our place in the world. I remember thinking, This is a place where I feel understood.” He was hooked.
His experience in Houston was just the beginning of an interstate urban-exploration binge that would span nearly three years, accelerating noticeably after Wright’s honorable discharge in March 2020. The resulting photos, posted on social media under the handle @driftershoots, earned Wright tens of thousands of followers — but, in his attempt to grow his brand, he made a rookie mistake. One night, atop the Great American Tower, the tallest building in his home city of Cincinnati, he left behind a sticker with his handle printed on it. Security guards had been watching him, dressed like a burglar, on their cameras the whole time, and though Wright got away, they knew who he was. His new followers included Cincinnati police detective Jeff Ruberg, for whom Wright’s military background — and, Wright argues, his Black skin — made him seem like a national security threat.
As Wright climbed more buildings, cranes, and bridges in more states, posting the results on Instagram, his police pursuers began to view him as a larger-than-life villain, a possible saboteur with mountain-combat training. He must be armed and dangerous, they figured, plotting some sort of attack.
In December 2020, police tracked him on his next trip. Wright was arrested face-down on an Arizona highway, his car seized, his clothes taken, his body thrown in jail alongside violent felons. Absurdly, Wright realized, he seemed to have the longest list of charges of any criminal on his block. Even the guards seemed to think it was overkill, stopping by his cell and taking their phones out, opening up Instagram and asking, “This you?”
Wright’s bail was set at an astronomical $400,000, but thanks to deft phone work and a receptive ear on the outside, he was able to get that reduced to $20,000. Although, in April 2021, this meant he could afford to go home again, he faced five separate criminal cases and spiraling lawyers’ fees for each.
Sleeping on his dad’s floor in a tiny Cincinnati apartment, wearing an ankle monitor, unable to step outside, Wright stewed. Where on Earth would he get the money to defend himself from the charges? This was at the height of Covid-19 and at the birth of the NFT craze. NFTs — non-fungible tokens — are blockchain-verified transactions that publicly register when someone has purchased a digital good. An artist calling himself Beeple had just made $69 million auctioning NFTs through Sotheby’s. Wright got an idea: Why not sell the photographs that led to his arrest, using those same images to get financial revenge against a legal system that had tried to ruin him?
Wright’s first sale did OK, netting roughly three grand for a single image — not life-changing, but good. Wright, however, was nothing if not determined. By the end of April 2022, one year after his release from jail, he had made more than $10 million. He could pay his lawyers. He could fight his charges. He could sleep at night.
He could also help his family and former cellmates. “‘You guys took so much from me,’” he says, explaining his rationale and speaking to the jailers in his head. “‘And now I’m going to take this same work and change the world with it. I’m going to do this for me, I’m going to do this for my family, I’m going to do this for people who are incarcerated.’”
Wright began donating 15 percent of the money from his NFT sales to bail-reform causes, specifically targeting Hamilton County, Ohio, where he is from. “I know too many people who, if they had the resources I have, they’d be OK, too,” Wright says. “That’s what solidarity is about.” This solidarity included a pledge of $50,000 to a former blockmate who used to cut Wright’s hair in lockup and will use the money to open his own barbershop in Cincinnati.
His outsize financial success has not been without its critics; some simply hate NFTs and the environmentally wasteful amount of electricity needed to process a single transaction, while others find Wright’s photos no different — and, truth be told, no better — than those by dozens of other urban explorers, folks who were doing this long before Wright ever jimmied open his first door.
If his reputation has come in large part due to his outlaw mystique, the next steps might prove to be the hardest yet to navigate. This past summer, Tim Spence, CEO of Cincinnati’s Fifth Third Bank, purchased three photos by Wright at a local art gallery and, upon hearing Wright’s backstory, officially invited him up to the roof of the bank’s skyscraper. There, in October, Wright livestreamed himself shooting the Cincinnati skyline for participants at a citywide arts festival — in effect closing a loop on this first act of his career. Standing there, surveilled not by cops but by public-safety coordinators, Wright gazed out across the void to see the crown of the Great American Tower, the very building where his legal troubles all began.
For Wright, the arc of this entire, head-spinning experience — from Army combat trainee to urban explorer to millionaire photographer to corporate-approved artist in the course of barely three years — is very definitely about social justice, but it’s not only about social justice. It’s about bail reform, but it’s not only about bail reform. It’s about art, but it’s not only about art.
It’s also about the universe and inspiration and sticking together with our friends and family, and keeping something aflame within us all. “That’s the goal,” he says. “An ever-expanding consciousness of what’s possible. Who can I be? Can I live my truth and live it undeniably, without compromising?” Wright thinks about the question for a few seconds in silence, a cliffside of windows in New York City reflecting the sun behind him. “Fight for you,” he adds. “Fight for your existence. Fight for your mind.”
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