In UNDER THE COMPLEX photographer Justus Hirvi (b. 1988) trespasses into the underground network of Helsinki with some of the most talented Finnish skateboarders. The photographs are taken during a five year period (2013–2018) and many of them are shot in spaces where the general public doesn’t normally have access. In the project Hirvi manages to illuminate details of Helsinki’s secret underground world and provides the reader with clues about its different implementations. It proves why these spaces are locked, but it also questions how well they are guarded.
The 200-page publication is published by Carhartt WIP and Melu Magazine. It consists of black and white photographs, an introduction by Hirvi and short dialogues collected from the spaces.
Hi Justus. Can you tell us about the start of this project?
Have you ever visited Helsinki? It's the best city I know, but 4-6 months a year it’s snowy/raining.
In autumn 2013, I got the idea for a photographic project that I could work on during the winter, regardless of weather.
I had heard rumours of underground spaces and tunnel networks under Helsinki and the topic seemed interesting, so I began to look into the matter.
Through skateboarding and photography I have gotten interested in urban environment and architecture, as well as their exploitation in different ways. The most bizarre entities or inconsistencies accumulated in an urban environment accidentally or over time, and their use in a manner not designed for it is the most interesting for me.
The most rewarding situation for me, is when I find an interesting place in the very heart of the city. A place that has remained undiscovered and completely untouched by others. Often, finding and utilising these types of places requires a lot of work. So I tend to walk around the city trying to be aware of all the possible interesting places while sweeping through everything from the holes in the courtyards to the roofs and cellar hatches.
While I often try to minimise any inconvenience or hazards in my projects, after carefully weighing the benefits and disadvantages, if the idea is good enough, I can put a lot of time and effort into pursuing a spot. I might even take risks.
How did the project proceed? When did Rakastaja Robert get involved?
The first autumn in 2013 I explored the underground spaces very actively. I also found some outside of Helsinki. But when I began to understand the size and diversity of the underground network in Helsinki, I decided to only focus on documenting it and forgot about the others. As the project progressed, it seemed that all these new underground spaces could also be sen as legit skatespots, as well as interesting architectural points. This made it really interesting for me to continue to explore them.
In 2015 I finally made something concrete with my idea and decided we should make some kind of a print product out of the images I had taken in the cellars. While I already had made some sketches regarding the layout, I asked my friend Robert for help and he got really interested in the project. Together we conceptualised the project that formed the final Under The Complex.
What was the final concept about?
From the beginning I thought that Under The Complex would be combination of underground spaces and skateboarding, but I wanted the outcome to also be interesting for non-skateboarders. This was the starting point of the whole concept. I also wanted the end result to be of the highest quality, but not too expensive for my broke-ass skateboarder friends. Financially, this project has made no sense, but I feel like skateboarding has given me so much – and I want to give back.
The pictorial entity is built around underground architectural and spatial images, underground discoveries, detailed images and sketches. The skateboarding images are generally from places where no one has skated before or if they have, then the skating has been done in a new way. This in itself required accurate timing, strict planning and basically meant that we would be faced with numerous setbacks.
The book also includes the background story of the project which involves how I initially tried to get permission from the city of Helsinki to photograph these constricted areas. The story sheds light on the comical situation and the struggle involved in a project like this. In my mind, it really brings out the mood and feel of these underground places.
As for the colour scheme of the book, we sought to counterweight the heavy black and white entity with a bold neon colour. The orange colour of the book actually refers to the colour scheme of underground warning signs and the colour of the Helsinki metro. The use of typography is also brutal which goes with the style of the premises, but the spirit of the project it is quite playful. The serpentine text emphasises the hassle of traveling, the labyrinth of the tunnels and difficulties in browsing underground maps.
The tricklist that opens from the back cover also allows you to see the names of the tricks without turning the pages back and forth.
With Robert, Under the Complex became not just a photobook but something much more interesting.
What was the most challenging?
The hardest thing was to get the book out of the print! At some point we were already quite certain that the project would never become a concrete product. All the possible things went wrong for reasons beyond our control. It’s too long a story but here's a short version:
I basically sent around 40 tenders across Europe and waited for many months. Finally one print house was able to print the project but before finishing the print it suddenly went bankrupt. That's 3.000€ wasted before the project had even been printed. The second print house printed all cover pages wrong. This meant that all planned things for the release went down the drain.
In the end, when I was carrying the first delivery of the final book home, a random drunk person vomited on me in a tram. Right in the neck! As a result I forgot all the posters of the launch event in the tram. It was a mess ! hahhha!
Are there any other projects going on?
Some longer projects are at planning stage. They are not all related to skateboarding, but to some extent they also involve opportunities offered by urban environment and nature. While obviously involving more mapping and detective work.
Thanks a lot Justus for the interview and your great work!