Judge awards 5Pointz graffiti artists $6.7M in decisive victory over Queens developer

Posted On Tue, February 13, 2018 By

Posted On Tue, February 13, 2018 By In Art, Long Island City, New Developments, Policy

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

A federal judge in Brooklyn ruled Monday that the destruction of work by 21 graffiti artists at the Long Island City complex known as 5Pointz had enough recognized stature to warrant legal protection–to the tune of $6.7 million, the New York Times reports. The judgement was awarded following a landmark Federal District Court trial in November, when a civil jury concluded that real estate developer Jerry Wolkoff of Wolkoff Group broke the law when he whitewashed the building of its colorful murals under cover of night. As 6sqft previously reported, the iconic graffiti-covered warehouse, visible from passing trains since its beginnings in the 1990s as an artists’ studio and exhibition space, was razed to replaced by rental apartments–using the name 5Pointz as a marketing angle–by Wolkoff, who has owned the building on Jackson Avenue since the 1970s. Wolkoff, who claims he cried when the building came down, now has further reason to weep: The judge’s ruling awarded the artists the maximum possible damages.

5 pointz LIC Long Island City, NYC skyscrapersExterior rendering of the new rental towers via HTO Architect

The building has been the subject of heated controversy since 2013 the when artists’ colorful exterior murals disappeared overnight, and renderings surfaced for the rental towers that would replace it. The November jury trial gave the artists an incremental legal victory and a chance to confront Wolkoff in court to seek redress. The suit contended that the art, created with the owner’s permission, falls under the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, which can protect artists whose public art, though on someone else’s property, is of “recognized stature.”

Graffiti and other street art has gained prominence–and monetary value, an important component of the case–in recent years, and celebrity artists like Banksy have at various times joined the effort to avenge the 5Pointz creators. Early on, Wolkoff had given the artists his permission to turn the building into a graffiti mecca.

An important part of the case hinged on the fact that the paintings were removed at night with no warning. Artist Jonathan Cohen, who goes by the name Meres1, said he had hoped he’d be able to photograph the murals and remove a good portion of the art–much of it was pained on removable siding panels–prior to removal, and that it “could have filled a museum somewhere.”

22-44 Jackson Avenue, 5Pointz, HTO Architect, Long Island City developmentExterior and park rendering of 22-44 Jackson Avenue via HTO Architect

After the November trial,  Wolkoff called the judge’s decision “mind boggling,” saying the art had only been intended for short-term display. Wolkoff said he “likes and respects” the artists and that “I never thought they’d sue me–they bit the hand that fed them. They knew for 10 years I was going to tear the building down.”

Eric Baum of Eisenberg & Baum, the law firm handling the artists’ lawsuit, said Mr. Wolkoff did not, in fact, provide legal notice in writing at least 90 days in advance, which would have provided the opportunity to preserve the art. “We will make the jury aware,” said Baum at the trial, “that this was not graffiti, not vandalism, but rather work done with the permission of the owner, by artists of recognized stature, and protected by law.” Mr. Baum called the nighttime whitewashing disrespectful and cruel.

5pointz, Mojo Stumer, 22-44 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City developmentsCommon area rendering of 22-44 Jackson Avenue via Mojo Stumer

The developer said he made the decision to go stealth with the whitewashing to avoid more confrontation. The two high-rises that will replace the warehouse will offer 1,200 market-rate rentals starting in 2018. Wolkoff claims the development will include a public plaza with concrete walls, and that he plans to invite street artists to return and paint. Wolkoff Group recently borrowed $300 million from Bank of the Ozarks to fund the second phase of construction at the Long Island City complex, according to The Real Deal. The 1.2 million square foot development at 22-44 Jackson Avenue will be comprised of 1,115 residential units.

Baum calls Monday’s judgment “a victory not only for the artists in this case, but for artists all around the country. The clear message is that art protected by federal law must be cherished and not destroyed. With this win, the spirit of 5Pointz becomes a legacy for generations of artists to come.”

[Via NYT]


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Neighborhoods : Long Island City



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