Arts

Up There: High Vis Goes to Frightening Heights Across Downtown for His Rooftop Photo Shoots

Daniel Rockey
Photographer High Vis looks out over the edge of the Mosaic building in downtown Dallas.
We meet in front of the Mosaic Building on North Akard Street on the side facing the DART train tracks. High Vis, the high-rise climbing, literally on the edge photographer, is wearing a black hoodie, a snapback ball cap with the Triple D logo and a black mask. He never takes off the mask.

"In the beginning for sure, it was the whole 'no face' kind of thing," says High Vis, the only name by which he wishes to be identified. "We weren't breaking and entering in general, but the trespassing was illegal, and I didn't want to have any connection. I wanted them to just see my work on the high rises and things like that. I didn't want to be that influencer in front of the camera holding a coffee every day with selfies and stuff."

We're let in by someone with the code to the building who takes to us to the elevators. A photographer with the Instagram name RidesLongAndHard pushes the button to the highest level the elevator will go. I try to joke with High Vis about how I'm glad we're not using the stairs. He raises a finger to his masked mouth to cut me off before I can get to the punchline. He looks up and there's a security camera in the corner of this rising metal box. Like a dope, the first thing I do is look at it for way too long.

High Vis, his crew and I leave the elevator and head toward a stairwell to access the roof. Thankfully, we have to head up only one set of them to gain roof access. High Vis pokes his head into the hallway and back into the stairwell.

"There's no ladder so we're just gonna walk right out there," High Vis says. "There's an apartment next door. So let's go towards that way."

High Vis opens the door to the outside and there's just ... nothing. There's a roof lower than the interior floor but from a few feet away, it just looks like a door from Narnia is open, except the door is taking us back to Dallas from 350 feet above the ground.

"It's not scary anymore," High Vis says. "It used to be. It's part fear and part adrenaline. I don't wanna fall or anything. Whenever I'm on a rooftop, the first thing I wanna do is go to the ledge and look down."

High Vis is taking to the latest of one of God knows how many high-rise roofs to shoot photos and videos from some very precarious and breathtaking angles. This time, he's on the roof of the Mosiac to shoot dancer and entrepreneur Lejin Elaha, who met High Vis while he was doing photography work for the Dallas Mavericks, where Elaha worked as a model and dancer. As Elaha dances to the sounds of "Stick" by Dreamville, High Vis circles around him. Each time he goes from one side to the other, High Vis gets dangerously close to the edge. Even though I'm nowhere near the edge of the building, my hand is spot welded to a pipe jutting out of a brick wall under the Mosaic sign, one that I'm hoping transports something other than sewage. It grips tighter every time High Vis or one of his crew steps up to the edge or even sits down and lets their feet dangle over nothing but air. Every muscle tenses in my body like my brain is Tasering me when I even just try to think of what the view looks like from any remotely fatal angle.

"I like the thrill of it," Elaha says. "I'm a thrill seeker, and I like capturing the art and movement of it."

High Vis has been going to unauthorized heights all around downtown Dallas for more than eight years. He's amassed thousands of followers and fans and is one of the first to bring "rooftopping" to the Dallas skyline, the trending term for urban explorers who find ways to access rooftops and document their most daring brushes with gravity in photos and videos. (This is not the same as those daredevils who use climbing gear to scale buildings' exteriors.)

"As far as walking like High Vis does, that's not easy, but I can sit on the ledge all damn day," says RidesLongAndHard as he prepares a new lens for his shots on the Mosaic. "Just don't lean forward if you don't want to die."

High Vis' only identifying info that he's willing to release is the degree in graphic design he received from the Art Institute of Dallas. He worked for a local agency and lived downtown, so he spent a lot of time walking around the heart of the city. He says he had some private photography accounts on Instagram but wanted something more public and eye catching.
click to enlarge High Vis and friends climbed into the Mobil Pegasus perched on the Magnolia Hotel. - HIGH VIS
High Vis and friends climbed into the Mobil Pegasus perched on the Magnolia Hotel.
High Vis
"That's when I was trying to come up with a name for myself and the whole 'High Vis' thing," he says. "I wanted to go with 'High Visibility,' but it was taken, and it kind of got dwindled down to 'High Vis.'"

High Vis' first public photos started on the ground taken during his daily route to and from work. He says he started to notice accounts of photographers in New York and Los Angeles taking their cameras to places you usually don't see on brochures.

"There were different photographers getting cityscapes or photos of the homeless people downtown," High Vis says. "It was very candid stuff, and nobody at the time was doing that in the city [of Dallas]. There were a couple of photographers, but it wasn't a very known thing. It was more just of a hip thing to take a photo of your coffee. There was no street stuff, no gritty stuff. I walked back and forth to work every day and nobody was doing that, so I decided to start."

Then one day on the way home from work, he says he got the nerve to start working on his tolerance to heights so he could shoot from above instead of on the ground.

"I started seeing rooftop photographers on Instagram but not here in Dallas," High Vis says. "I remember going to the parking garage that's now the Drake building, I believe, on Elm. Every day after work, I was going on the edge and getting the nerve to climb on the edge and hang my legs off of it. You have that adrenaline rush, and that's the reason to do it. That adrenaline rush and the pure rush of doing it. Those 10 days back and forth, it was definitely scary."

His first high-rise set of photos happened in 2014 on top of the Sheraton Dallas Hotel, and he started getting a lot more attention for taking risks.

"That's when they started to go, 'Wait, who is this guy and how is he getting in our buildings?'" High Vis says.

High Vis won't do anything worse than trespassing to get his shots. Usually, gaining access is as simple as finding an open door where there shouldn't be one at the moment.

"To be honest, in the beginning, people really didn't care," High Vis says. "I didn't really get caught too much because it wasn't a thing. Getting on the rooftop, it was pretty easy to just go up and down and I kind of always put that as a thing. I never wanted to leave any trace that I was there. I just wanted the photos I took. I didn't break and enter, but these buildings had security flaws, left a back door open or didn't have cameras or key fobs in them."

He's also developed an interesting network of people who know the best places to shoot and how to get into them without using force or breaking and entering.

"Basically, it's just to explore," High Vis says. "I walk by a door, and it's open. Maybe I'll go up to the stairs and the rooftop. I never really want to make it I'm telling people to go do this and do what I do. ... I try to just leave no trace at all. Just photos and that's it, which sometimes is the thing that gets the buildings to see it anyway. So either way, they're gonna know you went up there but after the fact, they couldn't really do much."

For awhile, High Vis' photos and videos were so widely seen that his work became the focal point of building security across the high rises in downtown Dallas. His photos from the top of the Comerica Bank Tower at 1717 Main St. in 2017 earned him an audience but also a noticeable amount of notoriety. He says it's definitely made it more of a challenge to get into places even if his most recent shoot seemed like a cakewalk.

"It was spontaneous," High Vis says about his Comerica building shoot. "It wasn't planned. It was just a thing and helped me get to the thing where I needed to take as many photos and angles and things because I'll probably never get up there again. It definitely made me a better photographer."

The nighttime shoot may have offered him some kind of cover, but someone definitely noticed him climbing around the Comerica.

"I learned how to use my camera in low light or just learning how to be quick with it because security might be up there in 10 minutes," High Vis says. "We had helicopters fly out. We're on a building across from the American Airlines Center during a game and a helicopter flew in with no lights and they were shining a spotlight on me. The cops had their guns drawn and everything because they didn't know if we were stealing things. Then they found out we're just photographers and they're like, 'Really? Why?' We just wanna take photos."

Melissa Graham, the senior property manager for the Comerica Bank Tower, declined the opportunity to discuss High Vis' activities.

"We do not condone this behavior and are not interested in discussing the story," Graham wrote in an email reply. "Thank you."

High Vis has been detained but never arrested or officially charged. The worst that's happened is getting banned from a building. That happened with Comerica building, but it only boosted his visibility and following. Thanks to the risks he's taken, he's elevated his name by working with major brands like the Dallas Mavericks and Triple D Gear to shoot rooftop photos on buildings whose managers grant him and his crew full access to roofs and high rises. He features shoe brands and accessories like Rovux Footwear and Crep Protect sneaker spray by sitting on buildings with their products dangling over the edge.
click to enlarge High Vis' point of view from the top of Margaret McDermott Bridge that crosses the Trinity River. - HIGH VIS
High Vis' point of view from the top of Margaret McDermott Bridge that crosses the Trinity River.
High Vis
He's also growing Dallas' urban photo community with DTX Street, the brand High Vis and his wife founded in 2016 to help content creators develop their art and build their name and brand through meet-ups. It grew strictly through word of mouth and hashtag campaigns.

"We had people coming from out of state, multiple times from Oklahoma and New Mexico, to come to these meet-ups," High Vis says. "High Vis, my brand, and DTX Street kind of grew together, but definitely DTX Street was a huge part of being able to have my brand grow as well. I think without DTX Street, the community wouldn't have been as big with street photographers. We started to get messages like, 'I don't really have a camera but I have a phone. Can I come to the meet-up?'"

In any case, High Vis still loves going places where others say he shouldn't, and he's always pushing himself to take more thrilling shots that can make the muscles in your arms and spine tense up just by looking at them. Most recently, he and RidesLongAndHard climbed the top of the Magnolia Building and across the neon covered scaffolding of its famous red Pegasus sign to get some great nighttime shots. He suffered a small shock when he grabbed part of the scaffolding that was electrified.
"[High Vis] pretty much got me into this rooftopping by finding him and making me aware it was here," RidesLongAndHard says. "I'm gonna say something I've never said out loud. It's a sick thrill. I'm sitting there thinking about leaning forward but I'm in control of this moment. Just having that sense of control where I don't have anything. In that moment, I'm God."

Sometimes, High Vis says he'll go to a rooftop just to enjoy the sound or rather the lack of it. Rooftops can be solitary places where your thoughts disappear as soon as you can see the skyline from a parallel view.

"It's a very quiet place when you're up there," High Vis says. "I've gone to rooftops and not taken any photos. It was just to go up there and enjoy it. We've watched fireworks on rooftops some years. I feel like if some people were able to go up there and fully experience it, they'll learn this is why I do it."