Urban Exploration Meets Crypto Art at the Very Edge
How artist Isaac Wright brought a daring, defiant, and illegal rebel spirit to the world of NFTs
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 says. “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 life 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 cranes, his feet often dangling over the world far below.
“Sometimes you’re just walking and an opportunity presents itself,” he explains. “There’s a way in here, 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 — before saving it. His photos led to a police manhunt, a jail term, and later, millions of dollars’ worth of photography sales.
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 city.
In the months leading up to his first act of urban exploration, Wright’s girlfriend began sending him links to photos taken from the roofs of high-rises in New York, London, and Shanghai, a dream world of subway tunnels, abandoned mansions, and neon lights. He imagined himself spelunking through strange cities while lying alone in his cot at night.
On a recreational break in May 2018, Wright drove to Houston. He had a new camera and an 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 roar of roads below. He took out his camera. 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 calming. As a human in that experience, you feel small.
It’s important to be reminded of our place in the world.” 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. 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 possible saboteur.
In December 2020, police tracked his next trip, and Wright was arrested facedown on an Arizona highway and thrown in jail alongside felons. Wright’s bail was set at an astronomical $400,000, but thanks to a receptive ear on the outside, he was able to get it reduced to $20,000.
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? 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 to get financial revenge against a legal system that had tried to ruin him?
By the end of April 2022, one year after his release from jail, Wright had made more than $10 million selling NFTs of his work. He could pay his lawyers now. He could fight his charges. He could also help his family and former cellmates. Wright began donating 15 percent of the money from his NFT sales to bail-reform causes, targeting Hamilton County, Ohio, where he’s from. “I know too many people who, if they had the resources I have, they’d be OK, too,” Wright says.
His outsize financial success has not been without its critics; some simply hate NFTs, while others find Wright’s photos no different than those by dozens of other urban explorers.
Then, 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, Wright livestreamed himself in October shooting the Cincinnati skyline 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 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 about the universe and inspiration, 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?”