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'Rooftopping' trend takes viral photography to risky new heights

While Vancouver's Rooftoppers say the 'rush of fear, excitement and pure joy' (as well as the Instagram fame) is worth the risk, police strongly discourage the dangerous hobby.

Rooftoppers take stunning shots of cityscapes but Vancouver police call the hobby dangerous and often illegal.

Contributed/Logan Newman

Rooftoppers take stunning shots of cityscapes but Vancouver police call the hobby dangerous and often illegal.

Instagram brought Logan Newman to high-rise rooftops.

“Rooftoppers” have been visiting tall buildings for decades, but thanks to the image-sharing app, the hobby of photographing and sharing dreamy and dramatic cityscapes from up-top has taken off.

Instagrammers’ skylines of Toronto, New York and Chicago inspired Newman, and so he and a friend decided to try it themselves.

“I can remember opening our arms and yelling, with all the people in the building across from us staring at us,” he said.

It was raining that day. The duo took their first #nextlevellookdown photo, a kind of shot that shows off a vertigo-inducing view of the plunge below. Sometimes, it’s a first-person shot of legs dangling off a ledge, complete with cool sneakers.

The feeling of being on a rooftop? “A rush of fear, excitement and pure joy,” said Newman.

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Search #rooftopping on Instagram and you’ll find over 117,000 photos of dizzying views, daredevils hanging off cranes or models standing on, sitting on or running across steep ledges. Subjects often wear popular streetwear, with images set up like magazine shoots in the sky. Some rooftoppers sell physical prints.

Vancouver Instagram account @604roofs compiles images from local rooftoppers. Icons like the Vancouver Lookout, BC Place and Robson Street can be glimpsed from above. One shot features a man sitting on a ledge, draped in a Canadian flag, watching the sun set behind the Hotel Vancouver.

Instagram’s geotagging allows others to visit the same rooftops. If there’s no tag on an image, Google Maps’ 3D mode makes it easy for photographers to find it, as well as new rooftops.

Examining Instagram accounts, Metro noticed it’s mostly young people practicing the hobby and that some accounts are run by minors.

Many try to one-up others in the community, and it’s easy for a rooftop to go viral, said Mark, 18.

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Mark, who started the hobby at 16, reached the roof of a famous high-rise with a friend and posted the images on Instagram. Within a week, 20 copycats posted images of the same rooftop online.

“It’s kind of upsetting,” he said. “You don’t feel very different from other people.”

The VPD’s media relations officer Const. Jason Doucette called rooftopping “very dangerous and often criminal in nature,” usually including offences such as breaking and entering and mischief.

Rooftoppers often rationalize their visits by saying they leave no trace.

Many Instagram practitioners were reluctant to speak to Metro about their experiences because of this. Over seven weeks, 13 did not respond to an interview request and three declined, citing privacy, discomfort and reporters in the past being untrustworthy or “painting rooftopping in a bad light.” The few rooftoppers willing to share are quoted here.

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Residential and hotel high-rises are popular among rooftoppers because visitors are common and it’s easy to follow somebody in, according to four Vancouver rooftoppers interviewed. Rooftoppers then make their way to the top via the elevator or stairs.

One interviewee, 18, admitted to picking locks. “It’s not that difficult,” said another.

“It’s not uncommon that our officers arrive on scene to investigate and are not able to locate the suspects because they have fled prior to police arrival,” wrote the VPD’s Doucette.

“Not only are the offenders putting themselves at risk, they are also potentially putting the public and first responders in danger. If one of these people slips and falls, a first responder has to put their safety at risk to rescue the rooftopper.”

Teens can be ignorant of the hobby’s dangers, said Kyle Mistry, mid-20s, who has rooftopped as part of his hobby of urban exploration, which he started at 19.

“There’s a teen bravado attitude,” he said, “and a lot of boasting for fame.”

But a 19-year-old Instagrammer — one among the few females who practice the hobby and one who dared to rooftop during Vancouver’s especially cold winter last year —wrote this to Metro: “We don’t do this because we enjoy risk-taking or goofing off. It is a serious hobby that many are engaged in to explore our city from a different perspective and discover the enchantment within it again.”

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