Column: Vandalism or street art? What the graffiti-tagged high-rises say about L.A.

Los Angeles, CA, Thursday, February 1, 2024 - Taggers have graffitied what appears to be more than 25 stories of a downtown Los Angeles skyscraper that's been sitting dormant for several years. Construction on Oceanwide Plaza, a $1 billion mixed-use retail and luxury apartments project with three towering unfinished structures, stalled in January 2019 after the Beijing-based developer lacked the funds to complete it. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)
Taggers have sprayed graffiti on what appears to be about 27 stories of a downtown Los Angeles skyscraper that’s been sitting dormant for several years. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

From a parking lot on the corner of 12th and Figueroa streets, Michael Lopez carefully commandeered his drone through the skyline around LA Live.

A video screen showed the drone’s slow ascent. Up and up it went, until it framed a shot almost straight out of Ansel Adams. The cloud-covered San Gabriel Mountains. Green foothills glimmering from recent rains. And an abandoned, half-finished skyscraper plastered in bright, bubbly graffiti.

Two other towers were similarly hit, virtually every floor of each 20-plus-story building featuring graffiti on the corners.

Taggers have graffitied what appears to be more than 25 stories of a downtown Los Angeles skyscraper
The unfinished Oceanwide Plaza in downtown L.A. is marked with graffiti after being tagged this week. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The audacity and visibility of the taggers’ feat — you can see it from the 10 Freeway and as far away as the Sixth Street Bridge — and the fact that the Grammys will be held on Sunday across the street at Crypto.com Arena has attracted worldwide attention.

It’s also become L.A.’s latest Rorschach test.

For civic leaders and professional L.A. haters, it’s the latest proof that the city is spiraling down in a doom cycle, another nightmare to add to our dumpster fire of street takeovers, homeless encampments and mass break-ins. The $1 billion behemoth, called Oceanwide Plaza, was once one of the biggest real estate projects in the city, but construction was halted five years ago when its Chinese developer ran out of money.

Read more:Taggers seen in action at graffiti-covered L.A. skyscraper. Across street in 2 days: The Grammys

For Lopez, however, the graffed-up buildings, which were supposed to feature hotel and retail space as well as luxury condominiums and apartments, are the latest thing to love about his hometown.

“It’s beautiful. It’s amazing,” he said. He held his drone shot and waved over a friend who goes by Juan G. The two had driven up from South L.A. to take in the scene.

“I know it’s getting mixed reviews,” Juan deadpanned, before adding, “I’m sure the people who live in the lofts across the street didn’t like getting peeped at!”

He continued to crane his neck upward. I rattled off some tags visible from the lower floors — Axion. Inkz. Cuts. XN28.

“You’re never going to see something like this again,” Juan continued. “The rules are going to change. The security is gonna come in here hard. But to have been a part of that? To see this up close? It’s a once-in-a-lifetime moment.”

I’m no fan of graffiti, but I couldn’t help but admire what the taggers had accomplished. Before us was a monument to the Los Angeles of the moment, highlighting so many issues, consciously or not. Rampant overdevelopment downtown. Civic corruption. Out-of-control graffiti.

A place with so much potential, yet so much desmadre.

If someone tried this at Art Basel, it would sell for millions. If Banksy pulled off a project of this scope, he’d be hailed as a genius. Since it’s a bunch of mostly anonymous people (two have been arrested and released), polite L.A. is in an uproar. Even Kevin de León, the city council member who represents downtown, emerged from his hiding hole on Groundhog Day to tell KTLA Channel 5 that Los Angeles should not be an “open canvas [for] budding artists.”

Read more:Two arrested in connection with tagging graffiti-covered L.A. skyscraper across the street from Grammys venue

It’s easy to portray the taggers as vandals intent on destroying L.A. But the towers have rotted while L.A.’s bureaucracy has done little to address the situation.

Taggers have graffitied what appears to be more than 25 stories of a downtown Los Angeles skyscraper
Oceanwide Plaza has sat empty and mostly forgotten, until a group of taggers spray-painted graffiti on the towers. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Instead, the taggers took it upon themselves to transform something ugly into something far more vibrant. Isn’t that L.A. at its finest?

That they used the medium of street art makes their work that much more Angeleno.

The city has felt under siege from graffiti for decades. I used to estimate my drive time on the 10 by tracking the exit ramps on the freeway signs. Now, I can do it based on which giant tag on which huge warehouse I just passed.

Graffiti at its worst does nothing to beautify neighborhoods. But what happened at Oceanwide Plaza wasn’t some spur of the moment scribble. The ingenuity in methodically bombing every corner with dozens of names, exemplifies the teamwork we should all aspire to. The failure here was from a company that has no money to afford security guards and a city government that should never have approved the pie-in-the-sky venture in the first place.

Besides, graffiti has been a part of working-class Southern California for decades. Even I, a nerdy teen, scratched “Pharaoh” on windows and wooden desks in eighth grade until security guards at my Anaheim school took away my etching tool. There was something liberating — validating even — to see an art form long demonized as vandalism, at the same time that large corporations have appropriated it, take over such a visible part of downtown.

“All of this doesn’t just belong to the developers,” Lopez said. “It belongs to all of us.”

Above the parking lot where he and Juan stood loomed a two-story mural featuring Clippers superstar Kawhi Leonard, street-art style. He was surrounded by bromides such as “Never Never Give Up” and “Follow Your Dreams” in scrawls that tried to mimic graffiti but were as cool as mom jeans.

“They call this art,” Juan said before waving back toward the skyscrapers, “and not that?”

I left them and walked to the front of the Crypto.com Arena. There, I found Zack Woodard taking photos of the tagged-up high rises before asking a friend to capture him with the buildings as a backdrop. High above him, a tattered, pockmarked white banner that read “Oceanwide Plaza” hung from an unfinished structure.

“When I Ubered to here on Wednesday, it was only half-done,” said Woodard, who’s in town for the Grammys as program director for the Grammy Museum Mississippi. “It’s really impressive to see how quickly they finished it.”

Another friend, Rachel Patterson, continued to look upward. “I couldn’t imagine going all the way up there!”

“People say it makes the skyline look bad,” Woodard said. “But it’s not going to be there forever. It’s done nice. Besides, street art is a part of L.A. history.”

He asked me what the buildings were supposed to have been. When I told him residential and retail, Woodard scoffed — “Just like everything else in L.A.”

As I drove off, I passed by the parking lot where I had met Lopez and Juan. More people surrounded them, all looking up, all with big smiles on their faces.

I smiled, too. There are a lot of things wrong with Los Angeles, but tagged-up ruins that bring happiness to locals and tourists alike are the least of them.

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