The lengthy legal drama surrounding a beloved graffiti spot has finally come to an end. Five years after a real estate developer painted over a beloved stretch of street art in Queens, New York, a federal judge has ruled that he must pay $6.7 million to 21 artists.
In November 2013, developer Jerry Wolkoff whitewashed their artworks at 5Pointz without notifying them. Today, Judge Frederic Block wrote in an opinion that Wolkoff — the owner of what was once the graffiti-covered 5Pointz warehouse, in the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens — acted willfully when he destroyed their art. Block affirmed a jury decision last November that Wolkoff violated the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA), which gives artists limited rights over paintings that they no longer own.
The final ruling sets a striking precedent for the protection of aerosol art, as a visual art form of recognized stature.
“The court’s decision is a victory not only for the artists in this case, but for artists all around the country,” the artists’ lawyer, Eric Baum, told Hyperallergic. “The rights of the aerosol artists have been completely vindicated. 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 that violates the law will be held to account and punished for the destruction of the art.”
The court examined 45 artworks and awarded $150,000 for each work — the maximum award of statutory damages allowed under VARA. In his ruling, Block added that a smaller amount might have been appropriate, considering the difficulty of proving actual damages. But the court found Wolkoff’s conduct, both during the whitewashing and on the witness stand, problematic.
“If not for Wolkoff’s insolence, these damages would not have been assessed,” Block wrote. “If he did not destroy 5Pointz until he received his permits and demolished it 10 months later, the Court would not have found that he had acted willfully.” Court documents describe Wolkoff as a “difficult witness” and note: “He frequently ignored or challenged instructions by the Court. He was argumentative and prone to tangents and non-responsive answers. Eliciting coherent testimony was a chore and was only achieved after the Court threatened to hold him in contempt.” (His lawyers did not immediately respond to requests for comment.)
Demolition of the 5Pointz warehouse, which Wolkoff replaced with a pair of luxury condominiums, began in August 2014. Nearly a year earlier, artists had attempted to impede the building’s destruction, but a federal court ruled against them. Under VARA, Wolkoff could have granted the plaintiffs 90 days notice to give them the opportunity to save their works, but he instead painted over 5pointz less than a week after the court’s decision.
While the new condos, as revealed last year, will carry the 5Pointz name and feature graffiti-inspired decor, one artist said that today’s ruling will help 5Pointz live on in other ways.
“The legacy of 5Pointz may be this ruling and the clear statement that aerosol art and public art are not disposable,” Jonathan “Meres One” Cohen, one of the plaintiffs, told Hyperallergic in an email. “The 21 plaintiffs believed in the law and stood up for our rights. We believed in the value of our art and we were heard.” Cohen, who served as de facto curator of 5Pointz and oversaw the site, will receive $1,325,000 in damages.
“The art adorning 5 Pointz is gone and can never be replaced, and the 7 train commute will never be the same,” Cohen said. “But Honorable Judge Block’s judgement is historical for generation of artists all around the country. 5 Pointz art was a true form of free speech, and this ruling honors this great American tradition of standing up for our rights.
“As the curator and creator of 5 Pointz I was honored to work with so many artists, and I am happy to see my art form recognized as true art.”
Update, 2/13, 6:10 pm: Wolkoff told PIX11 News that he plans to appeal the judge’s ruling.