It's the detail that allows them to continue what they are doing. UX slip past the functionaries, under the cordons, across miles of red tape.
At the same time, UX's anonymity is a major source of their allure. We are drawn by their gall, their pluck, but also the burnished gleam of a mystery. Kunstmann is surely aware of this, yet he balks at being part of "something 'plugged in,' elitist, VIP. But it's more basic than that. It's the patronage system.
It's taking 5 advantage of a hidden alliance. And so UX leave avenues for strangers to stumble across their works, they have published a book revealing certain details, and years ago they resolved to never hide what was in plain sight. This is why LMDP revealed themselves in The Nazis visited too, building a bunker in the maze below the 6th. Honeycombed across 1, acres of the city, the vast majority of the tunnels are not strictly speaking catacombs.
They house no bones. Limestone and to the north of the city, gypsum quarries, these are the mines that built Paris.
The oldest date back years to Roman settlers but most were excavated in the construction boom of the late Middle Ages, providing the stone that became Notre Dame cathedral and the Louvre. Riddling the Left Bank, these tunnels were at first beyond the city's southern limits. But as Paris's population grew, so did the city — and soon whole neighbourhoods were built on this infirm ground. The first major cave-in happened in , when an entire street collapsed not far from where the Catacombs Museum stands today.
Officials went underground: inspecting, charting, filling chambers with concrete, digging a new labyrinth of maintenance tunnels.
Then came the dead. In the late 18th century, Paris's overcrowded central cemeteries leaked. Fetid gases would waft into the 6 cellars of Chatelet, marinating wheels of brie and braids of saucisson. Beginning in and for about a century, the government enacted their grisly solution: they transported six million skeletons to the southern quarries. Five percent of the catacombs remain ossuaries today, and Racine, Robespierre and Marat are among the dry, dusty residents. Entrances to the tunnels can be found in the basements of hospitals, the cellars of bars, church crypts, subway tunnels, even at the bottom of Paris's tallest skyscraper.
Many of these access points have been sealed by the IGC, who both protect the city from the catacombs, and the catacombs from the city. That didn't stop the catacomb craze. By the time Kunstmann and his friends were in college, almost every Latin Quarter party would end belowground. The IGC fought back, deploying a series of barrier walls that crisscrossed the passages, blocking the flow of visitors. The plan was good, but it only had so much effect: trespassers soon found ways around — and through — the concrete blockades. By definition, Paris's hundreds of catacomb ramblers, its "cataphiles," decline to follow the rules.
They are an odd gang of misfits — "urban explorers," vandals, kids who just want to hang out belowground.
They chatter on online message-boards, share and hoard maps; they meander, explore, drink and drill through walls. By night they drop through manholes, and emerge from them, dusty, at dawn. Members of UX spend time underground, but Kunstmann insists they are not cataphiles. It isn't just a matter of style. Users for something other than the simple aesthetic of the places. And for something other than partying. Their ideas are not new.
Yet these allusions betray UX's modest code — to do interesting things, without permission. This credo allows for superficial punkery, sneaking into back-yards, but considered seriously, it becomes a 7 formula for being brave, for pursuing dreams. Which is a sappy way of saying — it grabbed me.
The first place I looked for UX was on Facebook. There were no results. So I set my nets wider.
I put up a message saying I was looking for contacts in the Paris "underground," figuratively and literally. I did the same on Twitter.
I emailed friends in Paris, types who organize concerts in subway-cars, asking similar questions. No one knew anything of Kunstmann, or of UX.
Next I scoured cataphile message-boards, at least those that are public. Although these forums had discussed the group's works and media coverage, I found no traces of UX's authors. As Kunstmann later scoffed, these boards are full of typical internet posturing — resentful quips and knee-jerk LOLs. I finally found Kunstmann through private correspondence with another journalist. They gave me an email address; that address told me to telephone a secret number; I asked for "Lazar"; Kunstmann answered; and we met at Le Pantalon.
My online searchlights were glimpsed by a friend-of-friends, pseudonym Cavannus, who does "urban exploration" in Montreal. Cavannus put me in touch with one of his cataphile pals — a man with a fake Facebook account, named for a celebrated guru. He tells me to meet him at Saint-Pierre-de-Montrouge church, to look for a guy "on crutches.
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I imagine this as cataphile ground zero, a place where everyone has limestone dust in their hair. The cataphile who meets me looks about 30, his dark hair pulled into a ponytail. He gestures at his crutches and says he slipped coming out of a manhole, on the rain-soaked street.
He is called BHV. He didn't choose his own, an acronym that refers to a famous department store. Someone else picked it, about a dozen years ago, and it stuck. Other names are more esoteric, like Sork, or Crato, the man who eventually takes me into the tunnels.
Some 8 conjure deliberate images. They share knowledge, lighters, cans of beer never bottles, which are still heavy when empty. BHV and Crato's first descents were similar — they saw a hole, or heard about a hole, and they entered. Telling me, BHV begins to cough.
BHV's story is beguilingly simple.
I could go, I realize. I could find an entrance on the internet, slip inside, wander until I find an off-duty policeman or a shy, kindly filmmaker. There's no light.