No limit, no control. That’s the motto of Angela Nikolau, a Russian daredevil whose high-risk selfies have won the hearts of more than 200,000 Instagram followers. Shot at the summit of some of the world’s tallest man-made structures, her self-portraits speak of freedom from fear and the restrictions of social conventions…
Nikolau is a roofer. Now in the nomenclature of the urbex (urban exploration) subculture, roofers, also known as rooftoppers, aren’t people who build roofs. No, they’re the people who scale them – the higher the better – and document their experiences for audiences on social media. So why do they do it? For adrenalin, bravado and fame, of course.
Like mountaineering, roofing is by and large seen as a male-dominated activity – the preserve of those macho risk-takers with the nerves and biceps strong enough to handle its trials. Now, however, 23-year-old Nikolau is challenging the view that only men can brave high places in urban spaces.
Nikolau comes from the sprawling metropolis of Moscow – which, it’s worth noting, is the birthplace and spiritual home of rooftopping. The city has spawned urbex legends such as Ivan Kuznetsov and Kirill Vselensky; but now Nikolau has brought something to the scene that others so far have not: femininity.
Sigmund Freud called the psychological forces of regeneration and destruction “Eros” and “Thanatos” – in layman’s terms, “sex and death.” The makers of horror movies have long known that the visual and thematic juxtaposition of Eros and Thanatos can have a riveting effect on audiences. And, seemingly, Nikolau understands this too.
Some of her shots are so glamorous that they might be from a glossy magazine; but, of course, Nikolau is no mere sex symbol. After all, rooftopping takes dedication, bravery and skill – and her success is far more contingent on those attributes than on her sex appeal or appearance.
In fact, the spiritual freedom implicit in Nikolau’s motto, “no limit, no control,” demands impeccable self-discipline. Images of her practicing yoga on the edge of precarious rooftops demonstrate admirable flexibility. And yet she could not maintain such contorted asanas without a powerful, well-trained focus.
In any case, prospective suitors should know that Nikolau has a boyfriend. Yes, that’s Ivan Kuznetsov (also known as Beerkus), who usefully serves as a substitute selfie stick when she needs both hands for balance. In fact, Kuznetsov is himself a well-regarded roofer from Moscow – another so-called “Crazy Russian” on the scene.
Sharing a love of danger and high places, Kuznetsov and Nikolau certainly seem to be kindred spirits. In fact, their Instagram pages are positively filled with images of their shared adventures. Think trips to the top of Moscow cranes, where they’ve basked in some of the most romantic sunset vistas imaginable.
However, perhaps their most astonishing escapade was a trip to the top of a 2,000-foot-high crane at one of the world’s tallest construction sites – the Goldin Finance 117 in the city of Tianjin, China. The impressive feat was captured by a flying drone, although sadly, smog seemed to mask some of the view below.
Nonetheless, the trip – which was funded by travel booking website Travel Ticker and included visits to other dizzying structures in the region – apparently left lasting impressions on Nikolau. “My life will never be the same,” she subsequently wrote on her Instagram page. Their adventure certainly looks like a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Meanwhile, with online reactions to Nikolau and Kuznetsov’s exploits effectively ranging from “wow, that’s amazing” to “wow, that’s stupid,” audiences are apparently divided on their merits. For example: “I keep thinking about the poor worker who’ll have to scrape them off the pavement if they fall,” wrote Glen Tabarejos, a commenter on website Bored Panda.
And that commenter’s fears are not without basis. A number of would-be daredevils have met with unpleasant deaths in recent years. In 2015, for example, 18-year-old Romanian Anna Ursu was incinerated by high voltage cables while taking a selfie on the roof of a train. Meanwhile, in 2014, 17-year-old Xenia Ignatyeva was electrocuted when she fell from a 30-foot-high railway bridge and grabbed some live wires.
Such grisly accidents underscore the fact that urbex activities such as roofing come with risks. However, when climbers risk death by summiting Mount Everest – a mountain dubbed “the world’s highest graveyard” – they tend to be lauded as heroes. So is there any reason why roofing isn’t given the same respect as mountaineering, or is it just political?
Part of the image problem may boil down to the fact that selfies are often regarded as shallow and narcissistic. Why, ask the critics, would you risk your life for internet fame? Whatever the truth, it’s interesting to note that recent research by Polish psychologists did find a correlation – albeit small – between narcissism and selfie-sharing behavior on Facebook.
However, could it be that other psychological forces are at play? According to Jungian analysis, Type T personalities typically seek out dangerous situations in order to experience a euphoric “high.” That said, it’s not just the “crazy” people who are Type T. No, inventors and innovators, Albert Einstein among them, often fall under the same classification.
So, in a sense, isn’t Nikolau simply following her natural psychological instincts and grabbing hold of life? Indeed, in the words of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “The secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is: to live dangerously!”
Furthermore, proponents of urban exploration say that their subculture is offering new angles on city spaces. And, interestingly, urbex echoes the ideas of French academic Michel de Certeau, who observed the ways that everyday people can subvert the intentions – and the power – of urban planners.
In short, urban explorers take audiences to places they’re not supposed to go. The pinnacle of a skyscraper symbolizes the unchallenged authority of global capital – a place strictly out of bounds to the commoners below. As such, Nikolau and her rebellious cohorts can be seen as providing a unique and valuable service.
What’s more, Nikolau clearly has a gift for what she does. Rooftopping is much more than mere reckless attention-seeking. Indeed, as an extreme sport, it places tremendous demands on its participants and ultimately delivers novel images of our cityscapes. Let’s just hope she takes care up there.