In what's been described by artnet as a "landmark" case, the owner of legendary graffiti hub 5Pointz has been ordered to pay $6.7 million to various artists for painting over their work. Real estate developer Jerry Wolkoff bought the Long Island City warehouse when its walls were decorated with pieces by thousands of artists, and in 2013 ordered workers to cover the art with white paint as work to convert the building into condos began.
The plaintiffs in the case argued that Wolkoff had impeded their rights by painting over the artwork, and was in violation of the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA). Art of “recognized stature” is protected under VARA, and the subjective nature of that distinction has prevented many VARA cases from going to trial. However, Judge Frederic Block agreed with the arguments of the artists and awarded $150,000 per destroyed piece.
In his 100 page decision, Block wrote that the artists “conducted themselves with dignity, maturity, respect, and at all times within the law.” In contrast, Block condemned Wolkoff, writing that he destroyed the artworks despite not having permission from the city to do so. “If not for Wolkoff’s insolence, these damages would not have been assessed. 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.”
Block regretted that the public did not have a chance to visit 5Pointz before Wolkoff began painting it overnight. “Since 5Pointz was a prominent tourist attraction the public would undoubtedly have thronged to say its goodbyes during those 10 months and gaze at the formidable works of aerosol art for the last time. It would have been a wonderful tribute for the artists that they richly deserved.”
Eric Baum, one of the attorney's for the plaintiffs, said the court's decision would have an impact far beyond the walls of 5Pointz. “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.” Jonathan Cohen, former art director at 5Pointz, agreed: “Judge Block’s decision will change the art form perception for generations to come.”
Attorneys for Wolkoff did not reveal if their client was planning on appealing.