Long Island City Graffiti Artists Win Legal Battle With Developer Who Destroyed Their Work

5 Pointz

For years I used to love taking the number seven train through Long Island City just to see the amazing 5 Pointz building and its amazing graffiti. Some called it “The United Nations of Graffiti” because of the international artists who created the art there. Other people dubbed it “the world’s only graffiti museum.” The owner, Jerry Wolkoff, had given the artists’ permission to use the building as a canvas for “aerosol art” and the building was covered in multicolored murals and tags, making it a tourist mecca as artists and fans of graffiti art from around the world traveled to see the former industrial building in Long Island City that artists had decorated for two decades.

Like many great New York stories, gentrification reared its ugly head. The property became increasingly valuable and the developer wanted to tear down the building and have a skyscraper built. The artists wanted to preserve their art. After three years of negotiations with the developers—including an offer to buy the property—5 Pointz filed the lawsuit, arguing that the work on site is protected under the federal Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA).

It all ended tragically one night. In 2013, Wolkoff decided to demolish the building and replace it with apartments, whitewashing the graffiti art in the dead of night and destroying some amazing art.

The angry artists sued Wolkoff and a jury has just ruled in the artists’ favor, possibly setting a legal precedent, but still not settling the matter once and for all. The jury concluded that the artists’ work was legally protected under VARA, and that Wolkoff had broken the law. It was the first time graffiti, or “aerosol art” had been given that protection under federal law, which could set a precedent that might protect thousands of graffiti murals across the United States.

“It confirms that aerosol art is the same as any other fine artist,” said Eric Baum to The Guardian, the lawyer who represented the 21 artists who sued Wolkoff. “And that the artist deserves dignity and respect.”

But like many legal cases, it is not over yet and Wolkoff could yet have the last laugh. The judge in the case will now make his own decision, Baum said, which will take into account the jury’s verdict, but the judge could reach a different interpretation. A legal precedent—which artists elsewhere could cite to protect their work—would only be set if the judge came to the same decision as the jury.

About Geoff Cobb

Geoffrey Cobb is a Brooklyn high school history teacher and writer of the blog historicgreenpoint.wordpress.com. He has lived in Greenpoint for over 20years and is the author of a book on the history of the area, "Greenpoint Brooklyn's Forgotten Past."

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