A federal judge in Brooklyn has ruled that $6.7 million will be given to 21 graffiti artists after their work was destroyed in 2013 by a real estate owner at the 5Pointz complex in Queens.
U.S. District Court Judge Frederic Block made the decision on Feb. 12, saying that Jerry Wolkoff — the real estate owner — violated the artist’s rights.
More specifically, he was in violation of the Visual Artists Rights Act — which, according to the New York Times, reads: “has been used to protect public art of ‘recognized stature created on someone’s else property.”
Wolkoff purchased the 200,000 square-foot building, which used to be a factory, in the 1970s for $1 million, according to NBC. Graffiti artists then approached Wolkoff to ask if they could decorate the vacant building with their art — to which Wolkoff agreed to.
Their artwork began in 2002. One of the artist, Jonathan Cohen, told NPR about the project back in 2013. “I said ‘…Let me start this place up, let me have a wall where no ego is involved, and artists could come paint.’ Favoritism doesn’t really float. If you do a good job and your piece comes out amazing, it could last longer. If you don’t, then it goes.”
5Pointz then became a well-known location throughout New York, open to graffiti artists from across the world.
In Nov. 2013, Wolkoff decided he wanted to build apartments there instead — so he had the building demolished, having the murals whitewashed in the process. Wolkoff made this decision to try and create as little conflict as possible. He told WNYC that, “It’s like a Band-Aid, I just wanted to take one rip off in one time. I felt it was best for them and I. I had tears in my eyes when I painted this morning.”
A band-aid that wound up causing a lot of controversy and costing a lot of money.
Graffiti artists were instantly angry at the decision, deciding to start a lawsuit against Wolkoff. A civil jury in Nov. of 2017 found that the case violated the Visual Artists Rights Act in 45 cases, resulting in the recent win for the graffiti artist.
To be clear, the Judge didn’t argue against Wolkoff’s ability to demolish the buildings — they’re his property and he had every right to. The crime was whitewashing the murals without notifying the artist so that they may have a chance to preserve their work.
“The cultural significance of 5Pointz and the value of the aerosol art created by the 21 plaintiffs has been recognized as fine art,” Eric Baum, attorney for the artists, told CNN. “It is now clear that the federal law protects the dignity of the artist and ensures that their artwork is treated respectfully.”