The metal door slams behind him as he looks up the last few flights of the stairway of a thirty-story office building in downtown Denver. Clean-cut, bearded, dressed in all black, he runs silently up the stairs until he turns a corner and sees a sign that reads “Rooftop Access,” by a door with a small lock on the handle.
Romeo Fernandez, urban adventurer, toys with the lock, sliding a card in the crack between the door and the handle. Over the howl of the wind outside on this snowy afternoon, he listens for sounds in the stairwell, keeping watch for security guards. Suddenly, the handle unlocks. Fernandez opens the door, and sunlight floods the hallway as he steps out onto the roof with its 360-degree view of the city, 300 feet above the ground. He rushes from corner to corner, capturing photos from extreme angles, trying new concepts. “When I’m up there, I don’t feel emotion. I’m working,” he says. “I’m able to shut my mind off; there’s no time to think or to process it.”
In five minutes, he’s done, leaving no trace of his visit beyond footprints in the snow. He slips back through the door and exits the building as quickly as he entered it, like a ghost.
Born in the Bay Area, the 35-year-old Fernandez started pushing the envelope long ago, when he started sneaking into buildings in Los Angeles. “My buddy would just drop me off in the city, and I would go out and find rooftops,” he remembers. “I’ve been on two rooftops in London, two in Paris. About two dozen in Denver alone. Some of them I can still access, and some are closed for good.”
An adrenaline junkie, he’s completely self-taught in both the art of adventuring and the art of photography — which he took up seriously when he moved to Denver two years ago. Since then, he’s worked tirelessly as a freelance photographer and for a commercial business that has him traveling across the country every month. But he always returns here, taking photos of the city and pushing them on social media under his Instagram name, @RomenEmpire, using the hashtags #Denver_AfterDark, #Portraits_AfterDark and #Chasing_Rooftops.
Fernandez says he’s much more than “just a rooftop guy,” but one particular rooftop photo went viral last fall, an image caught by self-timer on the roof of Union Station that shows Fernandez and fellow urban adventurer Lisa @AmusemyMuse standing on the gigantic lettering of the historic sign, towering over the city. After that, the roof was locked — but not forever, as Fernandez shared when we joined him recently to explore Denver roofs and his own story.
Westword: When did you move to Denver?
Romeo Fernandez: I moved here in 2014 from Huntington Beach. I wasn’t even a photographer back then. I mean, I Instagrammed and it was fun, but it was just for fun. I never thought of it as anything more than that. Just likes and followers. But now? It’s a business. It’s turned into a profession, which was never the case before.
How did you get into photography?
I used to photograph everything with a point-and-click — just a little camera, but it had a manual setting, a Panasonic FZ300. And all I wanted to do was learn how to do steel wool [a technique whereby steel wool is ignited and spun to create a light-writing or trailing effect], and that’s really how it all started. I would slow my shutter speed down and the wool would spin, sparking, writing in the air with light. It’s like a controlled explosion.
When did you first learn how to climb?
Before I was climbing rooftops and cranes, I was a rock climber — bouldering, no ropes, just a crash pad. Anywhere between eight and fifteen feet with no protection.
So you went from boulders to rooftops?
They’re not so different.
Do you have to be charming and somewhat manipulative to get into these locations?
Yes, you kind of have to be. You can’t look sketchy. Especially if you’re talking about housing. You need to blend.
Someone from Union Station recently contacted you and said, “Come back and shoot our roof again.” How did it feel?
I was actually way more nervous that time, just because it was a weird feeling. I’ve never been escorted up to a roof; I’ve never had permission before. They gave me a fifteen-minute window and that was it, fifteen minutes to do my thing.... When I got down, all the adrenaline hit me; it was really mind-blowing what had just happened. Last time, I snuck onto this rooftop, and this time, they were escorting me up there. It was unbelievable.
I’m in contact with a handful of crane operators here in Denver who are willing to work with me. One of them is actually trying to get me a job shooting sites for the construction companies themselves.
When your obsession with rooftops began, how did you find out how to get in?
I don’t break locks and I don’t cut locks. The only roofs I get on are the ones that I can get on without doing damage. I don’t leave a trace. If I can’t open it, I just move on to the next one.
What is the highest you’ve ever been?
The highest I’ve ever been is about 750 feet. The building was fifty stories, and the crane went up another 250 feet from the roof. That was in San Diego.
Talk about your time on the roof of the Stapleton air-traffic control tower.
We got caught. It took us over two hours to get onto the actual roof. Just figuring our way out inside the building was a challenge. There were locked doors everywhere. It seemed like there was no way, only dead ends. Then we found this small crack, a passage in between walls that my roommate could climb into and wedge his way up, ninja-warrior style. He was able to wedge up an entire floor to the next room, get across, and then open the door from the other side for me to come through.
After we got our shots on the roof, we went over to the air-traffic control tower and started spinning steel wool. It looks kind of like a firework went off in the sky. We did it maybe eight or nine times at three in the morning, so any neighbors who lived nearby, anyone driving by in the ’hood, all they saw was the control tower just completely lit up in orange. We were up there and saw a cop drive by, and we were like, “Oh, look at the cop” — we almost didn’t put two and two together at first. Then we realized when he turned in that he was coming for us. From there, suddenly, there were like six or seven police officers circling the area, all pulling up around the building. Once we saw them, we started heading down.
When they found out where we got in — which took them some time — we had made our way down to the bottom few floors. We decided to turn ourselves in. They were yelling, and they knew we were in there, so they were like, “Come out with your hands up.” Once we got to the same level they were on, we just yelled, “Hey, we’re coming out, we have no weapons.” As soon as we came out of the little crack in the wall we had snuck in, they had guns drawn.
I told them I was a photographer for a publication here in Denver and that I wanted to get a first look. At that point, Punch Bowl had just announced that they’d bought the space, and I knew this would be my only chance. The cops ran our backgrounds. Five or six cops had to search the whole building to make sure we were the only ones inside. I had a camera bag, tons of gear, the steel wool, photo business cards — that probably helped. Actually, we did leave a bottle of Jameson at the top, accidentally — we came down in such a hurry. They found it. That’s all we had besides photography gear.
One of the questions the cops asked about — the people who called 911 said it looked like lasers. I explained it was steel-wool photography. When they realized that there was no one else in there and we were telling the truth, they let us go with trespassing tickets. The arresting officer — I mean, he seemed like the guy in charge — asked to see one of the steel-wool photos we took. So I showed him on my camera, and right after that, he gave me his business card and said, “Hey, if you don’t mind, could you send me the steel-wool photo you took tonight?”
So I did. He was very appreciative and said he was going to get them printed. Then he went even further and said if I ever got in trouble again to contact him. I haven’t used it yet. I should, though.
What are some of the most memorable roofs you’ve been on in Denver?
I’ve been on the roof of the Hyatt, the Colorado Convention Center, the Denver Pavilions, the Denver Post, Stapleton. I have been on at least thirteen cranes here in Denver over the last two years. Probably close to two dozen roofs. Total, I can’t really count. I travel for work, so I’m on a rooftop in every city I visit. If it’s a good roof, I will hit it multiple times.
A lot of these iconic locations — the Marriott, the Ritz-Carlton, all of these big locations in Denver you see photos from — I was the first to do them.
Speaking of iconic shots, what was it like walking across the Denver Pavilions?
It wasn’t that scary. It’s not that bad, actually — about five inches wide. I was walking behind the sign itself.
You have some haters in town, some even going as far to start the #fucktheempire hashtag. What do you have to say to your haters?
If I didn’t have haters, I wouldn’t be doing something right. It stings a little bit, because Instagram used to be my everything. I was all about it, and now that Instagram has helped me get some amazing gigs and do cool things and commission jobs, I’ve taken a step back from it. I’ve focused more on Nightlife Denver, 303 Magazine or this local clothing company Threyda. The jobs I’m working now are commissions: senior portraits, rooftop engagements, a rooftop album cover and clothing like Rastaclat, Evertree Optics. I’ve done some work with Vertika, Aksel Apparel, Indy Ink.
When do you think this [climbing] phenomenon began in Denver?
Climbing cranes and rooftops really blew up in 2015. In the beginning, I was one of the only ones. There was no one else, really. I’m not the best photographer in the city, and there are guys who shoot better, but I get a lot of work because of the style that I shoot. I’ve been consistent with it. I’m not 100 percent there yet, but I will be by the end of the year.
We have to protect the rooftops. I took a step back from rooftopping for a while at the end of summer 2015 because the block was hot. Some people would go up there and go really hard, damaging locks, leaving trash and vandalizing shit. I don’t know if they all got caught or got in trouble or what, but a lot of these guys aren’t doing it anymore. People aren’t going as hard as they were last year, so I’m actually venturing more out onto the roofs again.
This portrait with a puppy in front of the skyline: How did you get the dog on the roof?
It wasn’t easy; we all had to jump. So we got into the stairway, one in this building that has rooftop access, and I opened the door from the other side so everyone could get in. But then we had to jump a seven-foot fence directly onto the roof. It was an entire family portrait. Her boyfriend, dad and dog. All of us did it.
Even the dog.
What’s your dream photography gig?
I’d love to be an adventure photographer: rock climbing, skydiving. I would like to shoot whitewater rafting, maybe, something involving travel. I’m an adrenaline junkie; I love it. I’m really blessed to have a second job that gives me the opportunity to travel as much as I do. You know, I would love being a photographer for a DJ.
Who are some DJs you’ve shot?
There are too many to count. Nick Cannon, Big Gigantic, Hermitude. RL Grime was tight. Dr. Dog was cool. The best part is, when I shoot clubs and parties and concerts, it’s ones that I would be going to normally.
What is it that you’re seeking when you go out and shoot the nightlife scene?
I like being around people. I like being around beautiful people. I like being out there; it’s fun. I have photographer friends who are introverts, and they’re amazing, but it’s sometimes hard for them to get themselves out there. I rarely have trouble talking to people and meeting people.
I’ve tried to keep myself outside of the norm so that I’m known. Out of the box. I just don’t want to be like anyone else. I want to be known for a specific reason.
What have you learned about Denver?
The people here are just so friendly and inviting. I don’t know — it’s just different from other places that I’ve been. I really enjoy the company of people here; it’s really easy to make friends. I never necessarily had popularity back home. I had a lot of friends and I did cool shit, but it’s not like it is here.
I always wondered what life would be like when I moved here. I had no friends out here. All I ever wanted to do was be...not necessarily a real local, but be considered a local. Like when I was living in Huntington, I felt like I was a regular and a local when I walked into the bar. Moving here, I didn’t even know if that was possible. But it has been, through photography.
I’ve seen your catalogue of model photography, fitness-based and sometimes nude or sexualized: “Models on the Edge.” How do you get models to come on these rooftops with you?
They just want to. I mean, when people hit me up through social media, it’s because they want to go on a roof. They want that experience, they want these shots. But we’ve been adventuring at our own risk. Liability — I need to figure it out. I need everyone to sign a waiver. I am working on more legal rooftops. It seems like my social-media presence is helping.
What recent projects have you enjoyed?
I brought some pies on a roof. I shot for Village Inn; the Denver Instagram account hired me to do a shoot with Village Inn pies for Mother’s Day. [The moderator] hit me up that afternoon, and that evening I went and picked up the pies. That night I shot the pies on a rooftop. I kept them in a box the whole time, walking them up in a grocery bag. I looked like a pie-delivery man. I asked Village Inn for these metal containers to prop them up. It was a huge hit.
Where is the next place you’re looking forward to shooting?
Royal Gorge. I was recently invited to go out and ride the train, document it, but I want to take it a step further. I want to shoot from on top of the metal wires above the bridge. We’ll see if they let me.
Why did you start shooting portraits after dark?
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I wanted something more than the rooftops themselves, so I got into rooftop portraits. Then I got into nighttime shooting. It’s a science. I was getting access to all these rooftops, and it was such a great view. It’s pretty up there. I remember thinking, “I want to put a person in front of this view.” I think they work together so well. Those lights shining in the background. And no one was doing it at the time. It’s something that I really enjoy.
What’s next for your adrenaline fix? Are you chasing a dragon, so to speak?
I might be. Just bigger and better, really. One time I went on top of a crane, and there were BASE jumpers who jumped off just thirty minutes before I got there. That’s when I realized this could be the next thing.
What would be your PSA for kids?
This is something I’ve said since the beginning: Photography is not a crime, but trespassing is. Explore at your own risk. And respect the roofs.