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A new public art project in Los Angeles is creating a lot of controversy

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

There's a new public art project here in Los Angeles that can be seen for miles around. It's a cluster of empty, unfinished skyscrapers in downtown that have been emblazoned by graffiti artists. It's stirring up controversy, with some people calling it art. Others argue it's vandalism. Either way, it has got everyone's attention. Stefano Bloch has written an entire book about graffiti in LA. He's an associate professor at the University of Arizona. Professor, can you describe for us what these skyscrapers look like?

STEFANO BLOCH: Yeah, these are, you know, multi-story, you know, 30-some stories sticking up into the air out of downtown Los Angeles. And they really stand out because they're just south of the main cluster of the central business district. And they're gleaming, unfinished buildings with exposed concrete, but really brought to life by all of this color on each and every balcony from ground level, all the way up into the sky.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, right near where the Lakers play, that arena. So people see it all the time. And there was a construction company owned by a Chinese developer. It started in 2015. They ran out of money in 2019. And then people, as you mentioned, have been using it for art - an art canvas, right? That's exactly what people have been using it for.

BLOCH: Yeah. You know, graffiti writers, once again, as they've done for decades and decades, see something that's being underutilized and they take it upon themselves to utilize it. And they've climbed up there, and they've put their names in bold colors, and they're getting the attention and the fame that they so desire. It's working.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. Base jumping, too - people have done that and posted that online. What's been the response to these spray-painted towers?

BLOCH: You know, the response is actually part of the entire story that's the most surprising to me. And that is that people are really having a nuanced conversation about literally the writing on the walls. They're talking about it as, yes, vandalism, as yes, an indicator of trespassing, but they're also talking about it as something that's vibrant and enlivening and something interesting. And they're asking questions. And this is really, for me, interesting because it's juxtaposed against the 1990s when there was a really - a moral panic about graffiti. When you saw graffiti, you thought violence or street territoriality and gangs. But this current conversation is really about who are these people? What are they up to? I might not like it...

MARTÍNEZ: Right now.

BLOCH: ...But I have more questions than I have answers.

MARTÍNEZ: And it's complicated, too, right? Because Los Angeles, much like other places around the country, has a housing crunch, a big housing crunch, and you've got these buildings that are sitting there empty, but are being used for something else, which in the case we're talking about here is art.

BLOCH: Yeah. And, you know, these buildings have been sitting there, you know, left fallow, for years. And I think no one really noticed because it's just, you know, reflective glass and concrete, this postmodern tower in the middle of downtown LA. And it took the graffiti being painted on it for people to look up and notice and say, wait a minute, why are these giant, hulking pieces of steel and concrete being left empty when there's people living on the street, literally at its base?

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah.

BLOCH: So it's really drawing people's attention. It's making them, once again, ask questions.

MARTÍNEZ: LA City Council approved nearly $4 million to remove the graffiti. Do you think, though, that this art should be protected?

BLOCH: You know, I'm not really for a municipality sanctioning graffiti. That kind of takes away the spirit of what graffiti is. It almost has to be illegal in many people's eyes. But the fact that the city wants to allocate money to paint it over is really what cities have always done. They want to slap paint over an obvious...

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah.

BLOCH: ...Superficial problem to make the city look better so people could feel better whether or not they actually are doing better.

MARTÍNEZ: Right. Stefano Bloch is the author of "Going All City: Struggle And Survival In LA's Graffiti Subculture." Thanks a lot.

BLOCH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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