One heart-crushing morning in 2013 at the notably ornate Long Island structure more commonly known as 5Pointz, graffiti artists awoke to find decades worth of art hastily covered with white paint. After multiple attempts by the artists, led by art curator Jonathan Cohen, also known as Meres One, to avenge the untimely demolition, a New York judge ruled on Monday that Gerard Wolkoff, owner of the building, is to reward some 45 artists whose art was desecrated with a total of $6.7 million in damages.
The judge’s ruling is seen by many in the artist community as a landmark ruling, since cases made by artists to preserve their street art very rarely make it to court. In addition to circulating a petition, the artists rallied to prevent the demolition of the building, which was intended to be torn down to make room for two condos that the Wolkoff family was planning to construct. However, on November 20th, 2013, Wolkoff commissioned the whitewashing of the 5Pointz wall, covering up the entire facade which was once shrouded in graffiti art. Shortly after in early 2014, the building was nearly completely demolished.
Artists who worked on 5Pointz sued Wolkoff in April 2017, suggesting that their rights under the Visual Artists Right Act (VARA) were violated. They also claimed that, as per the law, they were not notified 90 days prior to the demolition of the building. The verdict, which calls for Wolkoff to give $150,000 to each of the 45 plaintiffs in the case, amounting to $6.7 million, was detailed in a 100-page document released by Judge Frederic Block on February 12th. Evoking the violation of VARA rights is not unheard of, but it is rarely upheld in court given the vague understanding and legality of the claim.
The 5Pointz building, one of twelve buildings that made up the structure, was initially built in 1892 and served as a factory that made water meters. In the early 1970s, Gerard Wolkoff purchased the buildings and later rented out space as art studios to artists. In the early 1990s, Wolkoff was approached by an artist and asked to allow other artists to legally paint the building’s exterior, to which he agreed. 5Pointz, a name derived from the number of boroughs in New York City, was also seen as a “graffiti mecca,” since artists from around the world came to share their work with the city and its people.
In an interview with NBC 4 New York back in 2013, Wolkoff claimed that he commissioned the whitewashing of the art in order to make it easier for the artists to part with their work. “I can imagine going one piece, one piece, and going through hell, torture to everybody,” Wolkoff said. “So I said, ‘Let me do it one time and end this torture one time,” later comparing the art’s whitewashing to forcing a child to take medicine. The artists, however, did not buy his ludicrous claim. Shortly after the incident, Wolkoff tried to name the condos 5Pointz after the departed art installation, only to be shot down by courts, claiming the name was similar to an existing trademark.
The lawsuit that the artists filed in April 2017, which resulted in the court’s verdict that allotted the lump sum to the artists, is a landmark for street art everywhere. For years, street artists steered clear of explicitly calling their work ‘graffiti’ due to the public’s affiliation of gangs and violence with the word. The verdict has laid the groundwork for how artists interact with and claim spaces in their cities both in the United States and elsewhere in the world. The attorney for 5Pointz, Eric Baum, applauded the victory saying to ArtNet News, “Aerosol art has been recognized as a fine art. The clear message is that art protected by federal law must be cherished and not destroyed. Anyone who violates the law will be held accountable and punished for the destruction.”
When in 2013 the artists first heared news of the demolition, Jonathan Cohen vowed he’d chain himself to the building should Wolkoff proceed with his plans. Marie Cecile Flageul, a co-curator of Cohen, said to The Guardian “Either way, whatever happens, we’ve given talented artists a platform. We’ve made history.” At this moment in time, how street art is seen both in the United States and elsewhere in the world is changing. It seems that, almost five years after the demolition began, the memory of 5Pointz did not fall with the building, but, rather, remains with artists from all around.