Tightrope walker is latest problem for downtown L.A.'s graffiti towers

Add criminal tightrope walking to the list of problems besieging Oceanwide Plaza, the unfinished, bankrupt, vandalized, graffitied towers marring the skyline of downtown Los Angeles.

A 28-year-old performance artist who goes by the name Reckless Ben filmed himself Sunday teetering along a 1-inch-wide slackline strung between two of the derelict properties’ skyscrapers 40 stories above Figueroa Street.

“These buildings are pretty much the best canvas in L.A. right now,” Benjamin Schneider said. The stunt staged some 500 feet off the ground was first reported by KNBC.

Schneider told The Times on Saturday that breaching a metal fence the city erected to discourage trespassing to get atop the building only "makes it cooler."

"It’s like, 'Ha, ha, we were able to get past police!' It would have been boring if we were allowed to do it," he said.

It was the latest indignity for Oceanwide, once envisioned as a glamorous residential and hotel and retail complex in the hot South Park neighborhood but now a metaphor, in the eyes of some, of L.A.’s civic failures.

Taggers sprayed graffiti on at least 27 floors of a partly completed downtown
Taggers earlier this year sprayed graffiti on at least 27 floors of a partly completed downtown Los Angeles skyscraper directly across from Crypto.com Arena at LA Live. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

A Chinese company bought the block across from what was then Staples Center in 2014, but it ran out of money in 2019. With construction halted, the site became a seemingly irresistible draw for graffiti artists, with their work visible each day to thousands of motorists on the 110 and 10 freeways along with the throngs of conventioneers and sports fans at what is now Crypto.com Arena.

As taggers claimed the exterior, stunt performers began using its three towers, including BASE jumpers who paraglided from the roof. Police also responded to reports of gunfire on the premises, and the building's lower levels were repeatedly vandalized.

In an attempt to get control of the situation, the city earmarked $3.8 million for graffiti removal and fences in February, and the LAPD started round-the-clock patrols. Thirty people have been arrested on the property since February, the LAPD told The Times on Saturday. As last weekend's tightrope walk shows, the site remains penetrable.

Mark Tarczynski, a broker who is with the team trying to sell the property as part of bankruptcy proceedings, said the owners, Oceanwide Holdings, are paying for some private security to supplement the police. But, he said, the challenge is the size of the downtown complex: "It’s a million and a half square feet.”

Schneider said he created a distraction by having about 20 companions hold up large signs that read “Jesus Saves.”

"We were there for about 30 to 40 minutes just blending in," he recalled. When the police stopped paying close attention, he and another man hopped the fence, he said. Schneider wore a harness while making the under-three-minute journey between the towers, but said he was still scared of falling to his death: "It was an epic thing."

He left the slackline in place between the two eyesore towers, he said, partly as an art installation and partly because he was rushing to avoid police. He said he wasn't worried that someone else might hurt themselves trying to re-create his feat.

"Anyone who can hop the fence, get past the cops and get all the way up there, they will know what they are doing," he said.

Schneider's most prominent previous performance art piece was projecting the word "sucks" on a Scientology building.

Six days after his tightrope walk, he still sounded stunned he hadn't been charged with anything.

"It was like a whole heist, and no one got arrested. It was sick," he said.

The LAPD “has been made aware of this incident and has initiated an investigation,” according to written answers to questions provided by a police spokesman. Detectives have not yet talked to Schneider, the department said, adding, “It is a crime to trespass into the Oceanwide site, signs are clearly posted. It is not safe and it poses a risk to those trespassing, the general public and public safety officers, including our Fire Department in the event an emergency occurs.”

The unruliness at the site is not expected to affect its sale, Tarczynski said. An appraisal last month placed its value at $434 million, and a new owner who can afford the estimated cost of $865 million to finish the project is to be identified by the fall.

“Cleaning graffiti off the building is an easy task,” he said. “The big job is going to be completing it.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.