Just across Newtown Creek in Long Island City stood an abandoned industrial site that many considered the world’s greatest treasury of graffiti art. Tragically demolished in 2013, the world-famous Five Pointz consisted of twelve factory buildings ranging in height from a single story to five floors. The name Five Pointz referred both to the five boroughs of New York City and to the notorious 19th century Manhattan slum of the same name. Five Pointz grew so famous that tourists from around the world journeyed to Long Island City to photograph the amazing examples of graffiti art that adorned its many exterior walls, but the famous complex would not have a long life and would die a tragic death.
Located at 45–46 Davis Street, the buildings, which were constructed in 1892, once housed a water meter factory, but the water meter plant was long by the early 1970s when developer Jerry Wolkoff bought the abandoned factory and leased space inside to industrial firms. In 1990, hungry for new tenants, Wolkoff granted permission for artists to cover the exterior walls with art and by the 1990s artists attracted to the area by the low rents began to rent interior spaces in the building. Soon, aerosol artists began to cover the exterior walls with their colorful and creative murals. Initially called the Phun Factory, the building was renamed “5 Pointz” in 2002 when graffiti artist Jonathan Cohen began curating the exterior murals. The murals’ fame spread and Cohen even conceived plans to turn the huge complex into a museum of graffiti art. The former industrial complex attracted elite aerosol artists who arrived from all over the United States and even around the world, including famous graffiti artists such as Stay High 149, Tracy 168, Part, SPE, Dan Plasma, CORTES and TATS CRU.
While Five Pointz fame was spreading around the globe, Long Island City was also changing. Due to its proximity to Manhattan, the area started to become a magnet for high-rise residential towers and Wolkoff became increasingly aware of his site’s multi-million dollar real estate value.
In hindsight, the graffiti artists intent on keeping the building as an exhibition space and the development-minded Wolkoff were destined to come into conflict. On August 21, 2013, the New York City Planning Commission unanimously approved Wolkoff’s plans to build condominiums on the property, while the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission rejected the artists’ landmark status appeal for the complex. A firestorm of protest arose around the world after Wolkoff’s victory as artists and art lovers mobilized to save the now-famous complex. Even Banksy, the mysterious but celebrated British street artist, made a plea to save 5Pointz in 2013 during his art residency in New York City, but not even Banksy could block the destruction.
The evening of November 19, 2013 was a tragic night in the history of local art. In the middle of the night, the developer had the famous murals whitewashed, despite an injunction filed by 5 Pointz proprietors and a well-attended rally on November 16th to petition signatures to prevent its demolition. A ruling by a Federal judge after the demolition stated that Wolkoff could be liable to the graffiti artists for damages, but the destruction of the buildings went ahead anyway.
On February 3, 2014, artists sprayed “Art Murder” in large letters on the side of the building. Later the artists draped a large”Gentrification In Progress” banner around the building, but their biggest and most effective protest would soon come.
The buildings were replaced by condominium towers and Wolkoff seemed to add insult to injury when he brazenly tried to name the new towers Five Pointz, however, his application for use of Five Pointz as a trademark was rejected.
In 2017, it seemed that Wolkoff had won and the artists had lost, but some of the aggrieved artists filed a federal lawsuit the same year claiming that their rights as artists had been violated under the controversial 1990 Visual Artists Rights Act, which stated that artists had to receive ninety days notice prior to the destruction of their art. The artist’s case against Wolkoff was bolstered when it was announced that the case would be determined by a jury.
At first, the chances of the artists’ victory seemed poor. During most of the legal proceedings, the artists’ case seemed weak, as the defense attorney pointed out that the artists themselves had frequently painted over each other’s work, as well as casting doubt on the feasibility of removing graffiti installations without damaging them. The jury, however, saw the case differently and stunned the court when it decided in 2018 that Wolkoff had broken the law and violated the artists’ rights. The judge awarded twenty-one artist plaintiffs the shocking sum of over six million dollars in damages.
The destruction of the Five Pointz complex was a dark day in the history of New York City art, not to mention in the lives of the artists whose works were destroyed, yet some good came out of the tragic loss of art. The court’s decision in favor of the plaintiffs was a victory of sorts and set an important legal precedent that protects street art. Perhaps in the future will serve as the legal basis for protecting other pieces of threatened street art.