Oceanwide Plaza is Art Imitating Life in LA, Like It or Not

It’s one thing to get facetime on The Grammys. But when you get a shoutout on Foos Gone Wild? That’s when you know you’ve made it in LA. Such is the riches-to-rags-to-tags tale of Oceanwide Plaza, a stagnant development that has been unofficially reclaimed by LA’s art community. Once a trio of towers on their way to becoming a luxury mixed-use facility amidst Downtown LA’s thriving L.A. Live complex, Oceanwide Plaza has sat dormant since 2019. That all changed about a week ago when a veritable army of graffiti elite decided to lend it some of their vision. Of course, not everybody’s a fan.

The Stagnant Promise of Oceanwide Plaza

Photo credit: Benoît Prieur

Back in the days when an imminent global pandemic seemed like science fiction, Oceanwide Plaza was yet another luxury development peppering Downtown Los Angeles. Developers promised a mix of retail space, hospitality, and even luxury apartments and condos. With its ambitious billion-dollar pricetag, the Beijing-backed property development was one of the most expensive projects in downtown. 

In fact, it was so expensive that Oceanwide Holdings ran out of money. In 2019, the wheels of progress ground to a halt, that absurd pandemic actually happened, and Oceanwide Plaza hovered at the periphery of L.A. Live like a tasteless joke at a dinner party. 

Art Movement vs. Development Stagnation

As LA gradually returned to some state of normalcy following the pandemic, Oceanwide Plaza sat stupefied in the neon glow of the Staples Cen… errr, Crypto.com Arena. In September of 2023, Oceanwide Holdings was court-ordered to be liquidated. Any hope of forward movement for the idle monolith became even more futile as the thousands of dollars of liens stacked up. 

Whether you think what happened next is beautiful or terrible, we can at least agree that something happened. And as far as Oceanwide Plaza goes, that’s a miracle. At some point in late January or early February, a group of graffiti artists decided to take advantage of the largest canvas the city had to offer. A few days later, towering letters of dynamic shape and color covered 27 floors of the slowly decaying structural zombie. And this was just the beginning. 

The Bold and the Dutiful

So, what’s the big deal? Los Angeles has a thriving graffiti art scene. A drive through the industrial sector of Vernon is like visiting an open-air art gallery. But what sets Oceanwide Plaza apart is that you can see it for miles. And its quickly becoming saturated with a who’s who of Angeleno taggers keen to leave their mark. 

Oceanwide Plaza has also been a bit different in that this isn’t a guerilla crew hurriedly laying down paint and then fading back into the shadows. Over the last week, multiple crews (often at the same time) have strolled through the looming development, casually tagging the structure without any sense of urgency. 

As graffiti artists effortlessly breached downed fences, the Los Angeles Police Department recognized inadequate security measures and established a presence. But even as they momentarily detained trespassers long enough to cite them, more bands of artists showed up, tagging just a few floors above the overwhelmed responding officers. Then, on Saturday night, the line between creation and destruction was breached with groups of Angelenos arriving to shatter dusty windows. 

A Star is Born

Oceanwide Plaza became a nationwide window into Downtown LA’s bizarre landscape when the neighboring Crypto.com Arena hosted the Grammy Awards on Sunday. In one segment, the building’s spray-painted façade glowered conspicuously over host Trevor Noah’s shoulder. It seemed like a deliberate choice of producers to capitalize on the city’s latest fixation. 

As Los Angeles turned its attention to the major storm system arriving the same evening, city officials began to increasingly view Oceanwide Plaza as an embarrassment. The LAPD met with property management to hammer out a plan of action, including removal of the graffiti. At that point, none of the artists had been arrested. 

But by Tuesday afternoon, a responding group of around 30 officers arrested four people for trespassing on the premises, indicating a ramped up police presence. City council member Kevin de León indicated that the developer will have two weeks to clean up the graffiti and install adequate security or face significant liens. But, again, Oceanwide Holdings went bankrupt and may not even exist anymore. 

The True Offense

This brings us to the ultimate question at the bottom of the Oceanwide Plaza spectacle: why bother? Los Angeles can’t strongarm Oceanwide Holdings into selling the property. And even if they could, no one is lining up to pay a billion dollars to buy this property as is… graffiti or no. 

Some have argued that it’s unfair to let graffiti artists express themselves with this abandoned building, claiming their homes could be next. But there’s a gulf of difference between a lived-in residence and an abandoned skyscraper. In a city desperate for new and affordable housing, Oceanwide Plaza is a billion dollar middle finger to the people of Los Angeles. Graffiti at least puts some pretty nail polish on it. 

Opting for Oceanwide Plaza as a Blank Canvas

The graffiti remains emblazoned across Oceanwide Plaza at the time this blog goes to publication. It’s doubtful it will be there much longer. In some ways, a ramped up security presence will at least prevent any injuries or deaths by misadventure. But spending good money to scrub away the graffiti seems like a waste, frankly. Is anyone really in a hurry to return to the drab eyesore that’s blighted our skyline for the last five years? 

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