Did Graffiti Finally Get Protection Under Law? 5Pointz Artists Win a Battle
For years considered to be the world’s graffiti Mecca, 5 Pointz Aerosol Art Center Inc., better known by its shorter street name of 5 Pointz, was an outdoor art exhibit space in Long Island City, New York, where aerosol artists could paint on the walls of a 200,000-square-foot factory building.
Once an industrial complex, this location was turned into an epicenter of the graffiti world, uniting prominent urban painters as well as musicians, deejays, filmmakers, photographers and entire tour buses full of admirers.
However, although a symbol of the New York street art scene, 5 Pointz was lost to developmental expansion in 2013. The news that countless landmark graffiti were blatantly whitewashed echoed throughout the Big Apple, as people were amazed at the way urban artworks were treated as something totally expendable; a disposable fly that was mercilessly swatted in order for someone to make cash.
After the initial shock and disappointment wore off, what followed was a lawsuit the artists aimed at the developer who was calling the shots, Gerald “Jerry” Wolkoff. Despite the fact the odds of the artists actually winning at court were far from favorable, the jury decided that the accused was indeed at fault, ruling in favor of the graffiti painters.
Issues With Gerald Wolkoff
In 2013, developer Gerald Wolkoff announced his controversial decision to demolish 5 Pointz in order to replace it with a condominium complex. Although in all fairness, the site of 5 Pointz did belong to him from the very start of the graffiti project, this announcement was met with fierce public protests by the community.
Artists quickly united and filled a lawsuit against Wolkoff, hoping to somehow throw a wrench in his plans. The resisting artists were led by Jonathan Cohen, a graffiti painter known as Meres One who oversaw all aspects of 5 Pointz for more than a decade. Although this very public situation was at times promising for the graffiti painters, things quickly culminated in 2013 when Wolkoff took his plans to the next level.
5 Pointz in 5 Minutes
5 Pointz Whitewashing in 2013
On the night of November 19, 2013, the graffiti on the exterior of the 5 Pointz building were painted white. Despite the lingering lawsuit and the rally held three days prior to the night in question, Gerald Wolkoff made a choice to “speed things up” with a sudden painting over that was somehow supposed to put a peaceful end to the situation. Even though the developer made it clear in the early 1990s that he would only allow the graffiti to be painted on the building temporarily, the artists were outraged at the sudden destruction of their work.
Occurring overnight and without any real indication, this event put into motion another lawsuit, this one a lot more tangible than the previous one – the artists now claimed that the overnight whitewashing without any warning did not give them a chance to remove or preserve their 5 Pointz works. Despite the case the artists started to feel as if they had a real case at their hands, over 350 works were whitewashed under Wolkoff’s supervision and, in many ways, the battle was already lost.
Don’t Bomb These Walls (A 5 Pointz Documentary)
The Trial for Graffiti Rights
After Gerald Wolkoff made a choice to destroy the artworks, the artists’ legal argument centered largely on whether the developer should have given them a 90 days notice before destroying what made 5Pointz great in the first place. For the vast majority of the case’s duration, the outcome did not look good for the prosecutors, as the defense attorney argued that the artists had frequently painted over each other’s works, as well as casting doubt on the feasibility of removing graffiti installations without damaging them.
Meanwhile, the artists’ claim hinged on whether Wolkoff committed violations of the 1990 Visual Artist’s Rights Act, more commonly known as VARA. This law grants visual artists limited rights over work they created but do not own, and can entitle them to monetary damages if their works of a “recognized stature” are destroyed.
Although very few hoped for such an epilogue, the Brooklyn jury of six overwhelmingly sided with the artists, granting varying damages to each artist in connection with the Gerald Wolkoff’s violations. What made this an even bigger surprise is the fact that, as copyright experts note, it is extremely rare for VARA cases to actually make it to court because most are dismissed or settled beforehand. Eric Baum, the attorney representing the 5Pointz artists, said the following after he learned of the verdict:
The jury found the age-old saying ‘actions have consequences’ rings true. The strong message sent in this case is that art which is protected by federal law should be cherished and not destroyed or mutilated
It should be noted that the federal court jury in Brooklyn has handed a preliminary victory to the artists, meaning that this will not be the final word in the case due to an agreement reached between the parties prior to the start of jury deliberations. Instead, the judge presiding over the case will ultimately decide the lawsuit’s outcome, while the jury’s opinion is advisory, not binding. Nonetheless, this is a huge victory for the 5 Pointz, an opinion shared by Meres One:
5 Pointz and my 11 years of volunteer work there were dedicated to an art form I love and live. I stood up for the culture from day one, and standing up in court for the artwork myself and fellow artists created was essential in getting closure
So, What Happens Now?
The jury’s verdict may be positive, but the truth of the matter is that 5 Pointz and all the street art it contained is already ruined. Following the aforementioned whitewashing, the 5 Pointz building was demolished completely in 2014. The construction on the new building complex started in the following year. Nowadays, this once iconic site of graffiti history is slowly transforming into luxury condominiums and no amount of won lawsuits can alter that fact.
Nonetheless, we should not overlook the importance of the verdict, especially from a long-term perspective. This is the first instance in which graffiti was deemed to be of a recognized stature and afforded protection under VARA, which is definetely a significant step forward. Although far from a happy ending story, what happened to 5 Pointz could be a critical moment for graffiti’s acceptance as a validated art form as this case can pave the way for more aggrieved artists to seek justice if their works are destroyed. An expert witness in the case, adviser and appraiser Renee Vara expressed how important such a conclusion to the case is:
This is a win for artists’ rights all across the country. This is a win for the visual artists and their protection under VARA. This is a clear message by the people that the whitewash was a cruel willful act and Jerry Wolkoff was held accountable. It sends a clear message, which is that public art and free art is not disposable
Furthermore, if the judge in the case follows suit in the next thirty days or so, the verdict could set a remarkable precedent for the protection of street art works. This means that urban art could finally be handed a defense against the merciless real estate developers who tend to handle these pieces as insignificant aspects of their money-making mechanisms.
Featured images: NYC Graffiti Mecca, via huffpost.com; A Street View of the Building, via pinterest.com; 5 Pointz Graffiti Art (Dec 2012), via zazenlife.com; Street Artists’ Tags, via pinterest.com; 5 Pointz Graffiti, via thenypost.com; The Building After Being Whitewashed, via thenypost.com. All images used for illustrative purposes only.