Traditionally seen as vandalism, graffiti was the art form that transformed a 200,000 square-foot factory building into a Long Island City landmark. For over two decades, 5Pointz was a graffiti art epicenter. In 1993, the building was dubbed ‘The Phun Factory’, and a program called Graffiti Terminators followed shortly after. The program was designed to discourage vandalism by giving artists a canvas to showcase their work. In 2002, The Phun Phactory closed down. Months later, the space was given back to the graffiti artist community under the name 5Pointz. The name represents the convergence of New York City’s five boroughs for the sake of local art. 5Pointz brought together New York City artists and residents, but it also united all four corner of the world. Legendary writers from Canada, Japan, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Brazil came to leave their mark on the walls.
Jonathan Cohen and Gerry Wolkoff had an amicable relationship for years, as Wolkoff never charged the artist for the use of his walls. The relationship turned sour when plans to develop a luxury high-rise residential building in lieu of Cohen’s graffiti mecca were submitted. As part of the new complex, Wolkoff wanted to include space for local artists and their work. The plans included a 40-by-80 foot wall designated for graffiti artists, as well as a separate space for about 20 artist studios. ‘We always knew that re-development was a possibility, but you kind of forget as time goes on’, said Cohen.
Wolkoff’s plans for this new high-rise building became finalized in August 2013, putting a ticking clock on 5Pointz. Cohen, along with other artists, sprang into action by filing a lawsuit under the Visual Rights Act. They also submitted an application for landmark status. Ultimately, Federal Judge Fredric Block could not institute an injunction to halt the demolition. 5Pointz was also denied landmark status as it was ten years shy of making the 30 year requirement. Even iconic British graffiti artist Banksy made a plea to save 5Pointz during his month-long New York residency.
One November morning in 2013, Long Island City awoke to find the walls of 5Pointz completely painted over; Wolkoff had the building whitewashed in the middle of the night. Cohen and the local art community were distraught to see that the work of 1,500 artists had been covered up in a matter of hours. Marie Flageul, unofficial 5Pointz spokeswoman, told NPR, ‘We are supposed to be the vandals, but this is the biggest rag and disrespect in the history of graffiti.’
The 30th of November 2013 marked the last day of occupancy for the 5Pointz artists. It was a sober occasion as Cohen and Flageul packed up and said farewell. Even Baxter, the resident cat, was packed up and sent to a foster home, much to everyone’s dismay. Artists and supporters came to take pictures and enjoy the space for the last time.
During late summer 2014, 5Pointz succumbed to the wrecking ball as demolition began. Artists mourned as the building was turned into rubble. Although 5Pointz is gone, the fight is not over. Adding salt to the wound, Wolkoff aims to trademark the name ‘5Pointz’. G&M Reality, Wolkoff’s company, submitted an application to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to legally obtain the name. The application was denied due to similarity to the name of a property in California. Wolkoff plans to appeal the rejection. Cohen and the 5Pointz artists are encouraging supporters to sign a petition to stop G&M Reality from acquiring a trademark on the iconic name.
By Clareese Grace Hill
Clareese Grace Hill is a Brooklyn native. She is an arts and culture journalist who has reported on Cirque Du Soleil and exhibits at MoMA.