On Aug. 23, Toronto and the world lost Jeff Chapman. He was widely known to some in the North American small publishing community as Milky Puppy, the publisher of YIP magazine and longtime de facto moderator of the alt.zines newsgroup. He was more widely known still as Ninjalicious, the publisher of Infiltration, “the zine about going places you’re not supposed to go,” and the website http://www.infiltration.org. As Ninjalicious, he was an early leader of the urban exploration movement (in fact, he coined the term) and inspired thousands across Toronto and around the world to look at their cities in new ways, to observe obscure spaces and to celebrate the beautiful and often hidden details of urban life. He died of cancer at age 31.

Almost as shocking as the young age at which he died is the amount he managed to accomplish in his nearly 32 years. As a teenager in 1991, before the term zine became commonplace, he began publishing the handmade magazine YIP, a receptacle for absurd and often silly humour. It gained a following in the growing zine community throughout the ’90s, and through internet message boards he became a leader of that community’s development.

Chapman struggled with liver disease for years, and it was while he was at St. Michael’s Hospital for surgery in the early 1990s that his natural curiosity (which had previously led him to wander through construction sites) led him to explore the maze-like bowels of the medical institution.

To document this newfound passion for taking a “No entry” sign as an invitation to poke around, Chapman founded Infiltration in 1996 to document and promote a hobby he — and, soon, many others around the world — called “urban exploration.” In the zine and its accompanying website, he documented his travels in the forbidden passages of St. Michael’s, The Royal York Hotel, subway tunnels (his love of the TTC was unrequited; he was banned from Union Station) and utility tunnels, among other places.

He was evangelical about the virtue and value of exploring cities, preaching ethics that encouraged trespassing but forbade theft, vandalism and even littering. Urban explorers in the Ninjalicious mould believed in leaving no sign of their tourism through the inner workings of urban life, and in taking nothing with them but photographs and a new appreciation for the world around them. As Chapman wrote on his website: “Urban exploration is free, fun and hurts no one. It’s a thrilling, mind-expanding hobby that encourages our natural instincts to explore and play in our own environment. It encourages people to create their own adventures, like when they were kids, instead of buying the pre-packaged kind. And it nurtures a sense of wonder in the everyday spaces we inhabit or pass by that few local history books could ever hope to recreate.”

Chapman’s influence was far-reaching, as evidenced by the tributes from Australia, the US and Europe piling up at the urban-exploration forum at http://www.uer.ca and the many others at the alt.zines newsgroup. But closer to home and even to those with less of an appetite for the forbidden, he was an inspiration. As Shawn Micallef — an eye contributor, founder of the [murmur] project, editor of Spacing magazine and a leader of the increasingly prominent public-space appreciation movement in Toronto — remembers of his first Infiltration experience in 2000: “It was the first time I realized other people saw the city the way I did, as a mystery waiting to be explored.”

Chapman had a liver transplant in January 2002 that gave him almost three years of good health, until cancer was discovered in his bile ducts about a year ago. Told it was untreatable, he was given a couple months to live. He survived eight months following his diagnosis, long enough to marry his love Liz Clayton (a friend and eye contributor who has our deepest sympathies), attend the second instalment of the international Urban Exploration Convention he founded last year and see his book, Access All Areas, into print (it will be widely available next month, and can be pre-ordered at http://www.infiltration.org now).

Chapman’s family has asked that donations in his memory be directed to the transplant program at Toronto General Hospital and that, more importantly, everyone should sign an organ donor card and make their wish to become a donor absolutely clear to their families.

And perhaps also, in the coming weeks, we can all take the opportunity to look at the city with new eyes, explore areas we’ve never thought much about before and savour the experience of learning about this place in which we live. And if a suspicious security guard or administrator confronts us on our travels, we can tell them Ninjalicious sent us.

Originally published in Eye Weekly, September 1, 2005. 

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