The sky-high graffiti covering dozens of floors of the Oceanwide Plaza development in downtown L.A., a $1 billion project that was abandoned in 2019, has captured the world’s attention. It’s created eye candy for Instagram. It’s become fodder for conversations about urban blight and foreign investment. And despite graffiti’s undeniable rise to the mainstream, it’s reignited an old debate over whether it is art or vandalism.
To the graffitists participating and the experts watching, the “bombing” — as it’s called in the graffiti world — is more than a stunt or a crime. In a culture where visibility rules, the painted skyscrapers have become a landmark, literally taking the art form to a higher level. For them, it’s a historic moment.
Actual couldn’t pass it up.
On his first attempt to enter the complex, he got caught and ran out. On his second, he saw security chasing a group of graffitists and tried to enter from the other direction. Another guard was waiting.
Then, on his third try, he squeezed in through a hole in a fence that was covered by a construction sign. When he got into one of the towers, heart pounding, the real challenge began: “It was a big climb,” said Actual, who, like other graffitists mentioned in this story, spoke on the condition that he be identified by his tag name to discuss the illegal artwork.
He wanted to paint higher than others, but by the time he reached the 36th floor, “I couldn’t walk; all my leg muscles were just shot.” So he scoped out a spot and got to work. “It was like a trance,” he said. “You’re so high up that it’s not until you come back down that you deal with the world again.”
The effort wasn’t wasted. Susan Phillips, author of “The City Beneath: A Century of Los Angeles Graffiti” and a professor at Pitzer College in California, said in an email that it was “perhaps the most legendary roll call in the history of Los Angeles.” Roger Gastman, a longtime graffiti curator and historian, said there’s been “a boom in street work the last few years unlike anything I have seen since the 1990s,” and the buildings show “that graffiti is bigger than ever.”
The reaction was, of course, not entirely positive. The Central City Association of Los Angeles released a statement saying it was “disturbed by the images of the vandalism” and calling for the city to “address this blighted property before it becomes a further nuisance.”
The LAPD said Wednesday that it had arrested four suspects and was investigating “numerous crimes.” In a social media statement last week, it said that additional security measures would be “implemented immediately” and that the graffiti will be removed. The department did not reply to a request for further information.
In California, vandalism is punishable with jail time as well as fines.
On Tuesday, Michael Delahaut, who lives across the street, said he was watching police raid the buildings. To the 54-year-old, who has been in the L.A. graffiti scene since the 1980s, the creation outside his window was no nuisance — it was more like waking up and finding a masterpiece had been installed in his living room.
“It would’ve taken hundreds of writers, tens of thousands of cans. It’s amazing,” he said. “I’ve been able to witness a lot of graffiti movement moments, but this might be the biggest.”
The opportunity was created by a “perfect storm” of factors, Delahaut said. Buildings in the luxury complex, put up by Chinese firm Oceanwide Holdings, reached as high as 55 stories before the company put the project on hold in 2019 because of financial troubles, the Los Angeles Times reported. In December, the security company responsible for the property sued the developer, saying it had stopped paying. Oceanwide Holdings did not respond to a request for comment.
After the first night that pieces started going up, Delahaut said, he expected security to ramp up. It didn’t. By the next night, “it was clearly a scene,” he said.
Delahaut watched with the fascination of a curator. He admired the typography, kept a record of the artists’ progress — noting that he might need it for a later exhibition — and likened the work to the classic style captured on the cover of Martha Cooper’s canonical 1988 book, “Subway Art.” (He also compared it to a smaller project on a building in Miami last year.)
As a former graffitist himself, he couldn’t help but think through the logistics: “The process of getting into the building, climbing up the stairs and figuring out how much you got to carry,” Delahaut said. “Graffiti is so much more than the act itself.”
Some have looked at the graffiti as a symbol for the state of Los Angeles. Phillips, the author and professor, said that in a place increasingly molded by private money, the work is a “powerful commentary about who gets to shape what.” Stefano Bloch, a cultural geographer at the University of Arizona who studies graffiti, called it “an exposé on the failure of oversized development,” made “in vibrant colors that force us to look up.”
But the artists are split on their motivations. Aqua, a graffitist and fine artist who worked on the high-rise project, said in an email that for those involved, it was all about location. “It is in the heart of the city with high visibility. What a gem!”
For Actual, the work gave new voice to the streets. “The money invested in [the buildings] could have done so much for this city,” he said.
Now, he said, the graffiti is a reminder: “That’s every single kid in this city just putting their name down, showing they exist and taking the city back.”