Graffiti Pays, Even When It’s Done on Private Property

Owner of famed 5Pointz in Queens, New York, must now fork over $6.7 million to the 'aerosol artists' who spray-painted his exterior walls

This is not the verdict real estate developer Gerald Wolkoff was hoping for at all — and it’s almost certainly cringeworthy for many other owners of private property.

But visual artists and their works of color, chaos and creativity have trumped the rights of a private building owner in New York.

The developer now owes $6.75 million to visual artists for whitewashing and later demolishing massive warehouses known as the 5Pointz property in Long Island City, Queens, back in 2013. Wolkoff must pay $150,000 for each of the 45 “works of art” that he destroyed.

The twist? Wolkoff owned the 5Pointz complex.

A jury found that Wolkoff had violated the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) when he obliterated multiple murals on what the opposing attorney described as the “world’s largest open-air aerosol museum,” as The New York Times reported.

A little background. Upon learning of Wolkoff’s decision to tear down the buildings, one of the artists who acted as an unpaid curator of the complex, Jonathan Cohen — also known as Meres One — attempted to block their destruction by appealing to the City Landmark Preservation Commission. But his application was rejected. He later sought a preliminary injunction on the complex’s demolition based on the notion that the graffiti on the buildings’ walls should be protected by VARA, as The Washington Post reported.

But Wolkoff whitewashed the art before the court could come back with an initial decision on whether the works qualified for VARA protection.

Then, later, apparently before obtaining the necessary permits, Wolkoff demolished his buildings.

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A federal judge in Brooklyn, Frederic Block, called it “an act of pure pique and revenge for the nerve of the plaintiffs to sue to attempt to prevent the destruction of their art,” according to The Post.

Had Wolkoff waited 10 months to demolish the buildings, the ruling might have been different.

The judge awarded maximum damages to 21 of the artists. In Block’s estimation, Wolkoff violated a law designed to protect public art of “recognized stature” on someone else’s property.

Block said he made the penalty especially severe because Wolkoff had acted “willfully.”

Block also noted that Wolkoff showed “no remorse” for his actions, which Wolkoff reportedly undertook to make way for luxury condos.

5Pointz had been a “graffiti mecca” for several decades, and in the past, artists had been permitted to paint on, and live in, the building they rented.

Wolkoff’s attorneys had argued the artists knew for some time that their work would be destroyed.

“The court’s decision is a victory not only for the artists in this case, but for artists all around the country,” Eric Baum, the 5Pointz graffitists’ attorney, told ArtNet News.

Real estate owners and believers in the concept of private property likely disagree.

Wolkoff’s attorneys had argued the artists knew for some time that their work would be destroyed, as The Real Deal reported — noting in a separate piece that the developer has been planning a $400 million residential complex at the 5Pointz site.

Michele Blood is a Flemington, New Jersey-based freelance writer and regular contributor to LifeZette.

(photo credit: View of 5 Points, CC BY-SA 3.0, by Ezmosis)