Who Is Vyncex? Writer Josh Wood tries to find out. Photos by Mickie Winters

On March 22, 2021, the City and Regional Magazine Association nominated this story, published in March 2020, for best profile in its national awards competition. I asked the author, Josh Wood, to include a brief follow-up with Vyncex as a postscript. It’s just as wild as I expected.

— Josh Moss, editor



Close your eyes.


It’s the 1890s and Louisville is on top of the world. And here you are: a baron in a baron’s mansion that stands in a sea of barons’ mansions. Yours is a world of stained-glass windows, grand staircases and parlors large enough to host ensembles of the finest musicians. These are the kinds of homes you’d stick a pineapple statue in front of.


Now open your eyes. There’s a bottle of piss on the balcony. There’s a syringe in front of the fireplace. This is no American dream.


It’s autumn, Día de los Muertos, and Louisville has just had its first frost. This is the time of year when abandoned buildings get occupied. People get cold. People get high. People light fires. Buildings burn down. It’s just another part of life on the frontlines of America’s opioid epidemic. At last count, in March 2018, Louisville had about 3,600 vacant or abandoned structures, and it’s believed that a similar number exist today. The city’s Sixth District — which includes this swath of Old Louisville, along with parts of west Louisville, Smoketown and Shelby Park — had more than 600 vacant structures.


People have been trying to get into this Old Louisville mansion, kicking at the doors and prying at the heavy fleur-de-lis window bars. The building’s exterior is brick, but inside has lots of wood. Stripped down to its bones during an aborted renovation a few years ago, it now feels dry and brittle, like your foot could go crashing through the floorboards or a spent cigarette could send the whole thing ablaze. A squatter recently tried to light a fire in the basement, and it feels like a miracle this building is still standing — and perhaps more of a miracle that its intricate stained-glass windows and other architectural flourishes have survived years of neglect. But it also feels like the clock is ticking, like this time capsule might not have survived the winter without an intervention.


But then the pseudonymous photographer Vyncex found the building. He put a new lock on the front door and barricaded access points like he was prepping for a zombie apocalypse: planks of wood secured across windows, other boards nailed to the ground and leaned against doors. The signs warning of cameras and security systems are bluffs. Vyncex has alerted police to a squatter in the basement, and, other than more needles appearing in the sheltered outdoor stairs leading to that basement, the building has been secured. It might survive another winter. “I was just walking through the alleys one day taking photos and hanging out, and I saw a guy and his girlfriend passed out…on the back stairs,” he says. “So I was like, ‘Yo, y’all got to get the fuck out of here, man; my uncle owns this building.’”


His uncle does not own the building. Neighbors say it was being renovated, but construction ceased a few years ago, and the house has since sat stagnant. When Vyncex noticed a door had been kicked in on the grand structure, he saw an opportunity to get inside and take photos — an activity he does in abandoned buildings, or “bandos,” all over Louisville. He thought he’d just be back a few times to shoot, but then he got to thinking: What if he could save the old building and make it into something other than a trap house waiting to burn down? “There are more of these; they’re just sealed up and shit. If they aren’t sealed up, I’ll go seal them up,” he says. “I just don’t want people shooting up dope in them, man.”




The first time I heard of Vyncex I was out drinking with a buddy at Nachbar in Germantown. The May air was hot and heavy, and we were sitting outside because I still smoked back then.


We’d been drinking a bit and the night had grown late as we watched the endless caravan of UPS jets lumber overhead. When we get drinking a bit and one day becomes the next, we sometimes get to telling stories about when we were younger and our lives were more full of adventure and danger — my buddy served as a Marine Corps machine-gunner in Iraq’s Anbar Province and I reported on conflicts and upheavals across the Middle East. I think we were talking about some of my photojournalist friends still overseas who take the kinds of photos that sear into your memory how bad war is and put themselves at great risk doing so. That made my buddy bring up Vyncex. He said he’d been doing some of that how have you not been shot yet? photography in Louisville. He told me to check out his Instagram.


Vyncex’s Instagram is a captivating digest of misery: eroding façades of boarded-up buildings; people strung out on spice; graffiti-tagged drug dens; car crashes; fresh crime scenes; homeless people huddled under overpasses; stories of being held up at gunpoint. And needles. Needles, needles, needles. Needles on Bibles, needles on flags, needles in bandos, needles littering parks. Needles everywhere. He says he calls in needle hotspots to the city’s Department of Health and Wellness. Vyncex says sometimes he’ll rearrange a scene for a still-life shot — like, say, putting a needle on an open Bible — but that he has never planted needles.


Then there’s everything else on his Instagram: rants about photo composition, videos of the leaky ceiling he says his slumlord-landlord refuses to fix, and, of course, memes. Vyncex is perhaps the most prolific maker of Louisville-specific memes, from low-hanging fruit like the unceremonious downfalls of Matt Bevin and “Papa” John Schnatter to mocking the gentrification of Shelby Park and making light of the city’s drug epidemic. Some of the memes incorporate his own photos, like one of Bevin photoshopped into a homeless encampment or the series following “Fenty the Dinosaur” — a tattered stuffed animal Vyncex says he found in an alley behind an abandoned building and named after the potent opioid fentanyl.


Some are funny, some could be deemed offensive (like the one that says “Louisville be like” and shows a fumigation truck labeled “Narcan”). Louisville is often the punchline, cast as a city overrun with drugs, violence, homelessness and corruption.




There are some things I should mention before we go any further.


The first: Vyncex counts Louisville son Hunter S. Thompson as an inspiration.


Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club is another.


Both involve very unreliable narrators.


I ask Vyncex about this during our first meeting. Is he an unreliable narrator? There is, after all, a fantastic element to some of his stories (like successfully refusing to give up his camera during a gunpoint robbery), and he’s often at the right (or wrong) place at the right time (like when he says he saw a drive-by shooting aimed at a homeless person, and he hit the dirt taking photos). Not to mention he takes pride in trolling, or shitposting.


“It’s just kind of fun at this point,” he says of the content he posts on social media. “Like 80 percent of it is true.” After two months of interviews, he says, “Maybe 13 percent of what I’ve said to you is completely made up.”


I’m thinking of unreliable narrators as I pull up in front of the address Vyncex texted me.


Online, he’s been talking about claiming a grand old building for himself and waxing on about squatters’ rights. He says he’s going to fix up the building, try to restore it to its former glory. But I have my doubts as to whether the place actually exists. I mostly expect he’s just found a building that’s easy to access and isn’t otherwise occupied.


I call his number and a robot tells me Google Voice is connecting the call.


A minute later, the door swings open. Vyncex reaches out his hand and introduces himself. He’s skinny with a sharp nose, glasses and a beard, wearing a flannel shirt, old jeans and boots, a beanie pulled over a receding hairline. We’re dressed pretty similarly, except he’s wearing tactical-looking fingerless gloves and I’ve got on a Bats cap. At first glance I guess he’s 30ish, though his online persona made me think he was younger. It smells like weed inside.


Framed copies of his prints hang on exposed wall studs. Brown packing paper wraps a couch. Pigeon shit stains some blueprints. Tools are lying around, as are crushed Olde English tallboys and pieces of insulation that a squatter had torn from the wall and used as a bed. The back room has a massive “Matt Bevin for Governor” sign Vyncex says he stole in the Portland neighborhood and a print of a Ralph Steadman drawing of Hunter S. Thompson. He clearly has some control over this space.


He gives me a tour through the 6,000-square-foot house. Whoever stripped down the building left in place the ornate fireplace covers, built-in mirrors and other artifacts that look like they belong in a museum. It’s hard to imagine what the original inhabitants would have made of the scene. “I don’t believe in ghosts, but whoever bought this building, if they died in it, they’re probably haunting the shit out of it,” Vyncex says. “It’s 2019 and your mansion’s gutted and there’s just somebody shooting up ‘fentanyl light’ up there, drinking malt liquor.”


We head outside, into the back. Vyncex has been cleaning up this area, trying to make it look occupied or at least maintained, but refuse still collects from people camping out. On the concrete stairs leading to the basement, he motions to a syringe with his boot. “Oh, cool, a heroin needle,” he says. “Someone really brazenly sat here and shot up dope on these stairs again?”


I’m a little anxious about what we’re going to encounter in the basement. This door isn’t secured like the rest of the building, and the needle shows somebody was here recently. I ask him if he has ever walked into a vacant building that had people inside of it. He says he has but tries not to these days.


In a flash he unfurls a baton he has pulled from his pocket and strikes the door with loud clangs. BANG, BANG! “Code enforcement!” BANG!


He opens the door with a can of pepper spray in his hand. Later, he’ll show me a pistol tucked into the back of his jeans. He tells me he doesn’t like weapons but that they’re a necessary precaution.


The dark basement could be the setting of a slasher flick. An old HVAC unit is a makeshift altar, holding a Virgin Mary statue surrounded by wrappers for the drug spice. Trash and pieces of old wood cover the ground, as does one of those ubiquitous piles of clothes and blankets you see under bridges. It’s the kind of thing you pass every day in Louisville, but here in the dark basement, it feels personal. Someone was squatting here, in a space so cluttered with debris it’s hard to find the floor. Living doesn’t get much rougher.


Vyncex hopes he can do something with the building. “I just don’t see any reason not to use the remnants of this Gilded Age fucking façade of someone’s wealth,” he says. “It’s just sitting here. It’s a shell of wealth and privilege two or three times over. And now it’s just a massive fuck-you to all the homeless people. This hulk of a goddamn useless, worthless building that has people tryna shoot up dope and shit and come in here is being unused while there’s somebody freezing their ass off just down the street.”


Vyncex’s vision is grand and always evolving: If he can fix the place up, he would live there. He floats the idea of setting up an artist colony, a place where starving artists like himself can stay for free or cheap and have studio space — something like a squatter version of Germantown’s Lava House before that burned down in 2008. (Under Kentucky law, squatters can take control of a property through “adverse possession” after 15 years of occupying it. Until then, however, they have no legal claim and can be considered trespassers.)


What stays steady in his vision is this: He wants a studio where he can create and a gallery for events. “I think it’s kind of like an exercise in public anarchy or some shit, just like reclaiming property that’s not being used. Because it was a public nuisance, man,” he says. “Somebody was totally going to come through here this winter and set this motherfucker on fire. I guarantee it.”


At our first meeting, Vyncex describes himself as “Vice News mixed with the Trailer Park Boys and one Gopnik over in Chechnya or something who just fixes shit and collects BMW grilles” — a line so over the top I think he prepared it ahead of time.


His pseudonym — a sort of play on his birth name, without giving too much away — is a gamertag he made on the video-game service Steam so he could play Fallout 4, a post-apocalyptic action role-playing game set in Boston. The game involves traversing sometimes strangely beautiful scenes of a decayed society, and some of Vyncex’s photos of abandoned places feel like they’re channeling the spirit of the game.


He says he used that gamertag to apply to the Kentucky College of Art + Design — and got in. “Let’s just start with I don’t know what his real name is,” says Leslie Millar, who taught Vyncex in a freshman writing seminar at KYCAD, where she is a part-time lecturer. “I don’t even really know what to call him. He’s told me to call him different names at different times.” He says that he has legally changed his first name to one of Eastern European origin. On his resume, he has used a last name inspired by a humorous scene in a Quentin Tarantino movie. (I’m not sharing any of his names in this story or identifying the building he’s occupying, as agreed upon at the outset of my reporting.)


Vyncex shoots on lenses that are three decades old that he buys for cheap. One of them has mold in it. He prints his work in his claustrophobic apartment using printer cartridges he says he has hacked so he can refill them himself and keep costs low. He says he survives on between $500 and $600 a month, with $300 of that going toward rent in an apartment he shares with a woman he met on Reddit. He works odd jobs (when I met him, he says he was harvesting hemp in Oldham County), collects donations from his Patreon page and makes a little bit selling photos. “I’m a very resourceful fucking just weird bastard,” he says. “It’s really all I need. If I need more money, I’ll make it.”


He didn’t have a web store until recently, instead only taking orders through people who dropped him an email or a DM. He’d ask how much they were willing to pay, often letting prints go for $30. He says the most he’s gotten for a piece is $300. He also distributes prints for free, hiding them in places like the abandoned Merchant’s Ice Tower in Smoketown, under trash cans in Old Louisville or by the Colgate Clock in Clarksville, Indiana, and then posting their location for fans on Instagram. Other times he’ll toss in a print when somebody makes a small donation. He’s the guy who will send you a weirdlouisville bumper sticker for a buck.


At one point, he texts that if I want to keep communicating with him, I’ll have to use Telegram, a secure messaging app I used overseas to monitor ISIS propaganda channels. We talk on there for a bit. The next time I see him in person, I ask why we need to talk on Telegram. He says it’s easier to use and send pictures over. Then our subsequent communications move back to text messages.


He’s evasive in answering questions, particularly about where he is from and where he has lived. “Southern Indiana,” he volunteers at one point during our first meeting when I ask him where he grew up. But then he adds, “I’d probably scratch that up a little bit, leave it more mysterious.” I make an assumption about what part of town he lives in, and he says I’m wrong. When he eventually shows me his apartment, however, it’s in the neighborhood I had originally mentioned.


When we first meet I ask him how old he is, but between 25 and 35 is all he’ll give me. Later, he tells me I’m a little older than him (I’m 32) and says he was born in the late ’80s. In a later interview, he shows me his Tinder profile, which lists him as 30, which he says is his real age.


He says he doesn’t drink but doesn’t want me to write that because maybe it’s better if his fans think he does.


On Reddit, he’s a fitting leader of the weirdlouisville board, which he founded after he was banned from the Louisville board for breaking its self-promotion rules. (When asked about Vyncex, a moderator of the Louisville subreddit said, “He’s an annoying, self-righteous spammer we’d rather not deal with.”)


At several points he tries to steer me away from writing for Louisville Magazine, suggesting we save the story for a higher-profile publication or that I do some gonzo stuff with him that we publish independently. I should be the Ralph Steadman to his Hunter S. Thompson, he tells me, getting dragged along somewhat unwillingly as we trespass into an abandoned neighborhood in southern Indiana, hopping fences and committing misdemeanors for the story. We’d get some random from Reddit or Instagram to drive us. “Spend a day or two freezing in the woods while using one of my hacked cameras and weird lenses and you’ll get a solid plug on social media,” he tells me.


He doesn’t want to sit for a portrait. Then he does but wants to have a stylist fix him up and dress him in a flashy suit. He doesn’t have any identifiable photos on his social-media profiles and says people frequently ask him what he looks like. When he shows himself to his fans, he tells me, he wants to be looking good. Even his Tinder profile picture is one where his face is obscured: a self-portrait taken in the reflection of a window pierced by a bullet. His Tinder blurb plugs his Instagram, invites prospective dates to explore abandoned buildings with him, and mentions something about hating him in a month but missing him in a year.


There could be, of course, practical reasons for some of this: Getting into abandoned houses isn’t exactly legal.


But the level of secrecy seems unwarranted. I wonder if it’s intended to build a mystique, to lend an air of danger. As a marketing tool, it works — hell, it got me to wonder who he was.

"I'm a very resourceful fucking just weird bastard."

Above: a sampling of Vyncex’s work.

“Ithink I just saw a drug deal,” Vyncex says from across the table, again setting down his Super Whizz Burger without taking a bite. I didn’t see anything, but I’m also smart enough not to turn around and gawk at something like that.


We’re at Dizzy Whizz on St. Catherine Street in Old Louisville. We got here when the sun was still up, and I scarfed down my Whizz burger and crinkle fries. But Vyncex keeps getting distracted. He picks up his burger, then talks instead of taking a bite. It must be cold by now.


I’m trying to corral the conversation, to nail down some stuff I can use. I’m trying to get his story, but it’s hard to do so with any order. Talking to Vyncex is a meandering exercise. At one moment he’s rambling about ex-girlfriends, the next he’s talking about how there are trap houses a stone’s throw from Logan Street Market. Then he’s going on about how he created the weirdlouisville subreddit on an iPhone on a Greyhound bus coming back from Chicago, where he was seeing a girl.


At times it feels like he’s channeling Hunter S. Thompson, and I wonder if he’s about to start calling me and everybody else in the place a scum-sucking bastard, a rat bastard or some kind of bastard and make the old dead bastard proud.


He’s wearing a camo hoodie and jeans, his baton bouncing in his back pocket as he walks up to the counter. “I do have normal clothing,” he says. “But in this neighborhood, I give no fucks. Nobody fucks with you if you just kinda look like shit.”


Over this meeting and a few others, I piece together his version of his story.


According to Vyncex, it goes like this: He was born in Manhattan and spent his early years on the Lower East Side, in Alphabet City, back when that part of New York was rougher than it is today. “A 1990s New York City apartment, physical food stamps and government cheese,” he says. “I just remember growing up around people who were on fucking heroin.” He says he remembers visiting his stepfather in prison at Rikers Island. He says that’s where his stepfather became a white supremacist, which made Vyncex hate neo-Nazis from a young age but also gave him the familiarity to, as an adult, talk white nationalists into posing for photos. He says his biological father is dead.


Sometime around third grade or so, he says he moved to the Louisville area with his mom and brother to be near family. He says his mother worked as a waitress to support them. “Shit will make you humble, will make you appreciate two bucks,” he says. Growing up, he says, “The trap house was just something that was just down the block. It was just something that when you were bored and you were a kid, you’d go in there.” At an early age, he says, he developed an “eye for urban decay, crime, what the fuck to stay away from.”


He says he didn’t graduate from high school but got his GED. He thought about joining the military but didn’t. He drifted around doing odd jobs, mostly fixing stuff. He watched friends struggle with drugs — synthetic weed, Oxycontin, Xanax. He has a non-coddling stance on addiction.


He says he has only been to New York, Louisville and Chicago, mentioning that he has always lived in the orbit of Louisville but only moved into the city proper recently. Later, one of his friends will tell me she believes his life, apart from his New York upbringing, has almost exclusively been spent in this area.


Vyncex picked up photography a few years ago in the wake of a rough breakup. He wanted an excuse to get outside and walk around and found that in the camera. He started shooting on an iPhone 5s before eventually buying an entry-level DSLR.


I ask him what he wants to do in the future. He says finish art school and get out of Louisville. Maybe head to Europe. Maybe Belgium, he says, like in the movie In Bruges. “Louisville sucks,” he says — channeling Thompson — “but I know nothing else but this foul city.”


Vyncex spends most of his time within a few miles of Old Louisville and downtown. He believes Louisville scenes of destitution are unavoidable, particularly from his vantage point. “I don’t have a car,” he says. “I’m literally there on the sidewalk; I can’t drive past it.”




It’s December and we’re meeting in the Highlands. Vyncex says he’ll be wearing “normal clothes” — no camo or anything.


I’ve asked him to introduce me to some people who know him in real life, not just folks who comment on his social media. When I first brought up the idea, he rebuffed it slightly, saying he’d go collect quotes from people who know him himself. But now he’s agreed to do some introductions. So we grab a couple coffees and head over to Chuck Rubin Photographics on Bardstown Road to see the eponymous owner of the beloved used-camera store.


When we get to the counter, covered with cameras and parts, Chuck Rubin shouts out a greeting to Vyncex from somewhere within the bowels of the store.


“This guy with you?” Rubin asks while looking at me, seeing a potential customer.


Vyncex tells Rubin I’m writing a profile about him and want to speak to people who know him.


Rubin jumps right in. “He’s a fucking nutcase, but he’s a great street photographer,” he says. “He’s either very brave or very stupid.” Rubin says he likes Vyncex’s photos, just not the subject matter — “the needles and stuff.”


It was here, in this labyrinth of cameras, that Vyncex bought his first “real” camera, a used Canon Rebel T5 with a kit lens.


“That was a shitty camera,” Rubin says as Vyncex reminisces.


Rubin’s shop isn’t exactly a high-volume business; it’s the kind of place where, if Rubin likes you (or tolerates you), you can hang out. So Vyncex started hanging out and talking photography.


While most of Vyncex’s fans first encounter his work on the screen, Rubin got his first glimpse when Vyncex brought in an armful of prints.


“It was definitely unsolicited,” Rubin says. “He made me buy one.”


“No, I traded you for a very shitty lens filter or a CF card,” Vyncex says.


“OK, he made me trade for one,” Rubin says.


We’re sitting down, and Rubin’s shop cat tries to lick at my latte before jumping on Vyncex’s lap for a nap. Vyncex and Rubin talk about the different capabilities of lenses and cameras. Watching Vyncex interact with a photographer four decades his senior, it’s easy to see that, despite the memes and the shitposting, he takes what he does seriously.


Vyncex starts ranting about the golden ratio — a popular approach to photography composition.


Rubin concedes, “He might be right about the golden whatever it is.”


“The golden ratio, man,” Vyncex says.


“I don’t have a clue. It’s just nothing I’m interested in.”


“You take the phi grid and then you take—”


“No. You push the button and you take the picture. You aim the camera and you push the button. All of that other stuff is just extra.”


As we’re talking, a couple of customers wander in looking for lenses. Vyncex points them in the right direction.


Rubin tells me he has watched photographers rise in this city and sees something in Vyncex. They’re friends, their relationship even surviving the time one of Vyncex’s former romantic partners pawned one of his cameras and some lenses at Rubin’s shop and Vyncex had to buy back the lenses he could afford. (Rubin maintains he didn’t know the camera was hot.) Rubin hasn’t hung his Vyncex print, a shot of an abandoned house in Portland on a snowy day (it’s not a lack of quality, he says; he’s got a backlog he hasn’t hung), but Vyncex says he’ll be back shortly to drop off some prints for Christmas.


“If this dude didn’t sell me a shitty camera,” he says, “I wouldn’t be a photographer.”


Even to those who know him, Vyncex is somewhat of a mystery.


Millar, from KYCAD, says Vyncex is a “very interesting and difficult character” whose insistence on doing things his way and resistance to instructions saw him butt heads at times with students and teachers. But Millar is a fan and sees a promising future. “I really admire him. He’s incredibly talented and incredibly driven. And his photographs are beautiful,” she says. “I just love him, I really do.”


When asked about his secrecy, Millar likens Vyncex to Andy Warhol. She says the iconic pop artist did the exact same thing. “Not with his name, but just with his identity, where he grew up,” she says. “He lied about what year he was born. He lied about what part of Pittsburgh he grew up in.” Millar says Vyncex is just creating his own identity. “There’s a lot of artists who do that, who shed their familial connections and make themselves completely anew. It’s part of the game.”


But for an underground figure, Vyncex mingles in the mainstream more than one might think. He is acquainted with recognizable names like Paul Paletti, who has a high-end photo gallery in his NuLu law office. “What I’ve seen has been intriguing,” Paletti says of Vyncex’s work. Vyncex religiously attends First Friday Hops, a monthly showcase of Louisville galleries, and wonders why fellow art students head to the bar instead.


His work still lives mostly online, but he has shown at a few galleries around town like 1619 Flux on West Main Street and the Tim Faulkner Gallery in Smoketown. Faulkner showed three of Vyncex’s pieces last year, selling one (a photo of a nearby Logan Street warehouse) for $300. “He’s got a very guttural style,” Faulkner says. “It’s obviously a little bit more edgy.” But that edginess isn’t what drew Faulkner to Vyncex’s work. “To be honest with you, the reason I was attracted to the work was based on his skills as a photographer,” he says. “I thought the composition and the balance of the photos was actually really good.”


Faulkner hopes to see Vyncex take photos of things outside his current repertoire and that give a more “well-rounded picture” of his surroundings. “Not everybody wants to see doom and gloom,” he says. “He’s a good enough photographer that if he could pull all facets of the equation together, I think you’ve got a full narrative instead of just certain portions of a discussion.”




Anne has lived in Old Louisville for more than 20 years. She and her husband knew they were moving into a changing neighborhood, but in recent years they’ve found their home flanked by abandoned properties.


As a retired schoolteacher, Anne says she is attuned to seeing people who are invisible to society and is curious about what’s going on around her. So when Louisville started aggressively clearing out homeless camps last year, she noticed an influx of homeless people walking down her street. She also saw people squatting in the vacant building next door, which had been in the midst of a renovation when it was abandoned.


One night last year, she could see light coming from the building, so she walked over there with her dog to see what was going on. That’s when she met Vyncex. To her, Vyncex is a welcome squatter. “It is good that it’s locked up,” she says. “It’s just a majestic building. And it’s sad.”


In the early hours of Christmas Eve, Anne was out of town when her alarm system notified her that somebody was on her front porch. She called the police and texted Vyncex, who was still up at 4 in the morning and checked it out. “Just having people here has changed the tide of what’s going on,” she says. “I think if more people were good neighbors, we’d be better off.”


Later, I ask Vyncex if he can introduce me to the neighbor on the other side of his building. He refuses. “That guy will tell you to go fuck yourself,” he says. “Don’t even try.”


When I get ahold of the neighbor the next day, he’s happy to talk.


Josh, a federal government employee in his 40s, moved in over the summer. He soon grew concerned as he saw people coming in and out of the abandoned building next door. Nobody wants to live next to a bando. They make neighborhoods look unsafe, which can become a self-fulfilling prophesy.


One day, Josh spotted Vyncex and confronted him. The realization that Vyncex was securing the building was comforting. “I realized what he was doing was just going in there and trying to do something positive with the space,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, I just have really quiet neighbors. And as far as (Vyncex) goes, he’s keeping most of the folks out of there who I think would probably burn the place down.”


It’s a legitimate concern: Over the past five years, there have been at least 55 fires annually in abandoned buildings across the city, according to the Louisville Fire Department. The causes range from “warming fires” left unattended to “careless or discarded smoking material,” though causes area never determined in nearly half of all fires in vacant structures.


Josh sees Vyncex’s project as a temporary one that will come to an end when the building’s out-of-town owner sells. But for now, Josh says, having Vyncex there is preferable to having it empty. To help Vyncex, Josh has run a power cord into the squat, allowing Vyncex to operate lights.


“I have a vested interest in making sure the place doesn’t burn down because it’s three, maybe four feet from my house at the closest,” Josh says.

At our first meeting, Vyncex describes himself as "Vice news mixed with the Trailer Park Boys and one gopnik over in Chechnya or something who just fixes shit and collects BMW grilles" — a line so over the top I think it was prepared in advance.

In December, Vyncex launched a Facebook fundraiser to support his efforts to take possession of several vacant properties he said he locked up around the city. The money, he said, would go toward creating an art gallery, studio spaces for local artists and community gardens for food deserts. “Over the past few months, I’ve fought a campaign of siege warfare with the ethos of historical preservation and playing real-life Home Alone by ironically securing buildings and protecting them from trespassers,” he wrote. Louisville’s vacant-building problem and its addiction epidemic were out of control, he said, and his was an effort to reclaim the city. It’s hard to tell if his fans took it seriously; he raised only $5 of the $7,000 he was seeking.


Inside the squat, the cold slows Vyncex’s work. The extension cord run from his neighbor’s house is connected to an industrial-looking lamp that illuminates much of the ground floor. With the winter sun setting early, he has taped a small flashlight to his flat cap to use as a headlamp. He’s trying to create at least one room that holds heat. When his apartment’s chronically leaking ceiling caved in during a December rainstorm, he was forced to spend a miserable night sleeping on the couch in this abandoned building without heat, water or a bathroom — and with the constant worry that somebody would try to break in again.


For now, he has tamped down his earlier plans of creating an artist colony. To make the building more habitable would cost tens of thousands of dollars at a minimum — money he does not have and money that, if he did have, would be wasted if he’s evicted.


In an ideal world, Vyncex says, the city would repurpose vacant and abandoned properties and use them to address the drug epidemic. “Why doesn’t the city just, like, seize them and pay recovering addicts to fix them up? Pay them like $10 an hour and teach them a skill and build themselves up instead of waiting for them to get picked up by an investor,” he says. “I don’t know why we’re not doing stuff like that.” But that’s wishful thinking. Most vacant buildings are privately owned. The city might board them up but does not have the authority to do much else unless the properties are acquired through foreclosures or voluntary donations.


Vyncex has been saying he’s done going into abandoned houses, especially locking them up. “At some point, you will get shot for keeping somebody out of a building if they want to do their business,” he says. But on Christmas Day he goes on a long walk through south Louisville, seeing what trouble he can find on the streets. He photographs what he sees: a shot-up Family Dollar, a trap house strewn with camping stoves and other trash, a man in a wheelchair moving past a crime scene.


I’ve caught Vyncex at a strange time. He is thinking of “selling out” — moving from faceless chronicler and creator of off-color memes to potentially using his real name and making money from his photography. He’s trying to ease away from the “edgelord” — or deliberately controversial — persona he has crafted, but doing so is hard: That kind of content is often more successful than the serious stuff he posts.


During a recent visit with Vyncex, I meet his friend Molly. Her boyfriend was one of Vyncex’s fans and started recognizing abandoned buildings from the neighborhood on Vyncex’s feed. So he sent him a message. Molly has been doing urban exploration for years and she quickly recognized a shared passion with Vyncex. She views his other content as a means to bring attention to the city’s problems. “I think he is really interested in the history of Louisville and its forgotten places,” Molly says. “He’s trying to get the most eyes on what he thinks is important by using the edgiest language.”


Given his memes about real problems like drug abuse and violence, I ask whether they’re a way of broaching uncomfortable topics. “Shitposting and making memes is kind of cathartic; you get to open up like a dialogue,” he says. “Even if it begins as a negative, at least somebody is talking about it.”


Molly says Vyncex’s full, transparent story is compelling, but Vyncex had forbidden her from sharing too much.


“I really wish I could tell you more about him, but he’s got this persona he’s going for, and being sweet and vulnerable doesn’t fit into that persona,” she says. “He’s trying as hard as I’ve seen a human try. I just wish he’d tell his own story.”




It’s the new year and I’ve just picked up Vyncex at KYCAD. We both need to eat, so we head to Four Pegs in Germantown.


My reporting is wrapping up, but I’m still trying to figure out where the Vyncex of Instagram ends and where the person sitting in front of me begins. So I press.


“Try being a pseudonym for about two and a half years and see how it kind of fucks with your ability to maintain friendships,” he says. “It’s definitely a character, kind of what I’d assume a method actor would be or something. I don’t particularly enjoy it. It would be cool if I could drop the stupid watermark and all that shit.”


His online presence has grown dramatically in recent years. His first Instagram post in July 2016 — a shot of a copy of Fight Club autographed by Chuck Palahniuk — got just one like. As he eats his burger, a meme he has made about how to pronounce “Louisville” properly (“Luhvul”) is racking up hundreds of thousands of views. “Facebook doesn’t like heroin memes,” he says.


Vyncex is obsessed with analytics and how posts perform. But he keeps his Instagram private at times, he tells me, because that somehow gets more people to subscribe. “It’s kind of a marketing strategy,” he says. “It’s like: ‘I want to know what the fuck this is.’” He has purged his Instagram of most of its memes recently, giving it a more professional air and relegating his shitposts to Facebook and Reddit.


But Vyncex’s rise has come with pressure to — well, to be the character he’s crafted.


“It’s a little strange because people have all these expectations of you just being some sort of crazy motherfucker who carries around a machete and whatever the fuck else,” he says. “You kinda have to adopt that persona.”


At Four Pegs, he mentions that he’s been seeing this girl for a few weeks and she might be a good person to talk to. He texts her to make sure it’s cool, then disappears into the bathroom with a Sharpie to write his Instagram tag on the wall before we leave.


I drive Vyncex over to his apartment, where his kinda girlfriend, a 21-year-old Spalding University art major named Hannah, sits on the stoop with a couple paperbacks tucked into her cardigan pockets. Inside, Vyncex’s apartment is cramped, and I’m interviewing Hannah in a hallway that passes for an office. Vyncex is a few feet away, sitting out of sight and around the corner on his sheet-less foam mattress. It’s not raining, so no water is pouring through the chunk of missing ceiling in the bedroom. No-trespassing signs decorate the walls. One of his cats — Gatsby or Artemis — jumps up on me and my neck starts feeling itchy because I’m allergic.


“We originally met because I sent him an Instagram message calling him out,” Hannah tells me. “And then two weeks later, I sent a dumb meme, and then we became friends.”


She’d sent him a message saying she loved his work but thought his attempts to publicly humiliate people like his landlord by frequently posting text conversations online was not a good look. She’d been following him on Instagram for a few months after somebody brought him up in her senior-thesis class.


“I was like, ‘Who is this guy?’” she says. She was drawn to his work. “I liked the fact that he was not sugarcoating it. I’ve lived in Louisville my whole life and I love this city because it’s…my hometown,” she says. “But I also don’t really appreciate when people completely sugarcoat over it and it’s like, ‘Oooh, Forecastle! Derby!’ and like forget all of the actual day-to-day shit that happens.”


“I thought she was going to flee within a half-hour of meeting me,” Vyncex says.


Now they hang out most every day. They even have Valentine’s Day reservations at White Castle. (Yes, that’s actually a thing people do.) Vyncex says he’s going to hand out roses in glass tubes to everyone there.


I ask Hannah if there’s a difference between Vyncex online versus offline.


“Honestly, I was expecting him to be a lot, like, tougher because he’s got this tough outside persona or whatever,” she says. “But he’s actually a really good guy that generally just wants to help people out. He just kind of has this online persona.”






This story was published in print in the March 2020 issue, just before the pandemic shut down Kentucky. I remember standing in line at the Goss Avenue Kroger with about a hundred beers in my cart when I saw the first pictures of the printed magazine pop up on my phone. I thought that, with life turning into a massive ball of anxiety and a hunt for toilet paper and hand sanitizer, it was unlikely anybody would really read the story.


The next time I saw Vyncex was May 29, the second day of mass protests in Louisville over the police killing of Breonna Taylor. I spotted his flat cap sticking out of the crowd on Jefferson Street downtown and shouted to get his attention. I was rolling solo and Vyncex and his girlfriend were the only people I knew there, so I suggested we stick close if we could, given how dangerous things had been the night before. We got separated as we followed the crowd marching past LMPD headquarters. Not long after, I was interviewing a priest or a pastor in the small garden area in front of Metro Hall when the booms of flash bangs and hisses of tear gas began. After years of breathing in tear gas as a reporter overseas, I try not to mess with the stuff anymore. When I got caught in a cloud, I retreated, swearing and trying not to touch my stinging eyes. As downtown Louisville got dark, I tried to find my way back to the square, only to be confronted with more clouds of tear gas and lines of riot cops.


Walking away from Fourth Street Live a few hours later, I again ran into Vyncex and his girlfriend, who, like me, were trying to leave. I’d been dropped off and it started to dawn on me that I didn’t have a great game plan to get home, complicated further by streets being blocked off. I asked if I could ride with them. As we approached Second and Jefferson streets moving east, we saw LMPD had blocked off the road with patrol cars to ensure no vehicles could enter the core of downtown. Then we saw a man lying on his back on the sidewalk, not looking too good as a street medic tried to attend to him.


Vyncex wanted to move closer, and I reluctantly followed. When we got there, I asked the street medic what happened. He said the guy had suffered a heart attack, which he said had been been caused by tear gas inhalation. The guy had a stout frame and looked to be in his 50s. The whole situation pissed off Vyncex. He started joining the medic in lobbying the cops to get the man some medical attention. Apparently an ambulance had been called but couldn’t get through because streets were blocked. Meanwhile, at this intersection just blocks from U of L Hospital, multiple LMPD cruisers sat idle. The officers seemed to shrug it off as not their problem. Their orders were clearly to block the intersection. I wondered if we were going to watch this guy die on the sidewalk while the police just stood there.


Vyncex lobbied harder. I wasn’t taking notes, so I don’t have any direct quotes, but I’m pretty sure he swore at the cops while telling them how ridiculous the situation was and how they appeared to be willing to let this man die on the sidewalk. Eventually, one officer relented: He said he would drive the guy to the hopsital, but only if we lifted him into the car. I imagine this had something to do with worries about liability. Vyncex and I each took a shoulder and the street medic grabbed the man’s legs. After months of being away from people during the pandemic, it felt weird to be lifting a stranger, feeling his weight and having his unmasked face inches from mine. We loaded him up into the cruiser, and the officer, true to his word, drove off.




In the immediate aftermath of the article’s release months earlier, Vyncex told me he hated it. Later, he said it had grown on him. Days after it was published, he texted me, panicking that the article had tipped off the owner of the building that his space was being squatted in. He said the man was flying from New York to Louisville, even though things were now shutting down for the pandemic. A few days later, Vyncex got in touch again to say that he’d met with the owner, who had agreed to fix some things in the building and lease it to him, making him a legal tenant. The story, like some other Vyncex stories, sounded fantastic in its nature.


In recent months, it appears that Vyncex has indeed turned the building into a gallery of sorts. It has a website and an Instagram. Its address is listed. In pictures, it looks cleaned up. Vyncex has hung some of his work there, as well as pieces by other artists. Through mid-April, it’s hosting an exhibition open to the public. On his website, Vyncex describes himself as the co-director of the gallery. I’ll hold off on naming the place or its address, as I’m not sure if that violates my initial agreement with him not to identify the building.


As the magazine got ready to upload this story online, I got in touch with Vyncex to try to get an update. I suggested a phone call; he suggested we meet in person. He said the story of what happened would take at least 30 minutes. When I went to set up the meeting, he texted back, “I don’t know who Vyncex is. I don’t have an update for you.”


He said I was still invited to the opening of the gallery’s exhibition in March — though he later texted to clarify it was for me as me, not as a journalist. “You’re invited,” he wrote. “Louisville Magazine isn’t.”

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