An art form deeply woven into the fabric of New York, graffiti has long served as an integral component of the city’s aesthetic culture. So far, its place in the widening sphere of fine art has been left undefined—but a current lawsuit pitting the street artists responsible for 5Pointz, a veritable real estate canvas in Long Island City, against the developer who owns—and subsequently destroyed—the site may finally establish graffiti’s legal place in the five boroughs and beyond.
A score of street artists in New York City are fighting the good fight against a real estate developer responsible for the ruination of 5Pointz, a street art mecca in Long Island City, Queens. The case went to federal court this week, where the rights of street artists to preserve their work versus developers who own the property on which the work was painted will continue to be heatedly debated until the jury reaches a decision. The outcome of the trial will be of paramount significance to street artists around the city.
The power struggle for 5Pointz began 20 years after developer Jerry Wolkoff gave street artists permission to paint and tag his derelict property in 1993. The buildings, which had fallen into a state of disrepair, were rapidly revived by local graffiti artists who transformed the neglected real estate cluster into a beloved and long-standing icon of street art in the borough.
All was well until 2013, when Wolkoff made a plan to demolish the buildings for a forthcoming condominium project in their stead. Under the cover of darkness, he painted over two decades of art without a word of warning. In the morning, locals awoke to find 5Pointz completely coated in white paint—a decision, Wolkoff told The New York Times, hemade to spare the artists the “torture” of witnessing their work’s otherwise slow demise.
Needless to say, Wolkoff’s choice, cloaked in empathy, was hardly enough to quell the anger of the artists responsible for the evolution of 5Pointz, as well as street artists at large who saw his act as an acute affront to the value of their art form. Later that year, they sued Wolkoff for violating the provisions of the 1990 Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), by which their work was protected under copyright.
The Brooklyn-based lawsuit now underway is the first of its kind to reach federal court. While VARA cases unavoidably pop up, they’re typically settled quickly and quietly with no publicity or universal implications. This case is a rare one, and according to artnet News, the presiding judge commented on how “lucky” the jury is to watch such an unusual deposition unfold. Attorney Barry Werbin from the law firm Herrick & Feinstein noted street art’s recent rise in popularity and value—”all untested issues,” he said, “which is why the case is so fascinating.”
Werbin predicts that a significant part of this case’s outcome will be predicated on the plaintiffs’ (consisting of curator Jonathan Cohen at the helm of a group of 20 artists) capacity to argue how and why their work is of “recognized stature.” Should they successfully prove their worth, their protection under VARA would ensure compensation for the loss of their work. The catch? “Recognized stature” is not so easy to define.
While artists were called to the stand to systematically prove how their work contributed to the burgeoning culture of Long Island City, defense attorney David Ebert argued that, due to the very nature of street art, none of them were likely to have sold any of the works, rendering Wolkoff’s decision to destroy them far less life-altering than suggested.
Ebert also noted that street artists consistently painted over one another’s work. “They call it bombing, and the next artist goes over someone else’s work,” Wolkoff explained. “They painted over their own work continually, and it goes on for years. That’s the idea of graffiti. There were tens of thousands of paintings there, over the years, and they’d last for three or six or nine months.”
What will complicate this case for the artists is an indisputable stipulation that Wolkoff openly clarified 5Pointz’s temporality. The site was never intended to become a preserved city icon, which the artists were admittedly aware of.
Regardless, they’re going to bat for all the paintings Wolkoff stealthily destroyed. According to a Harvard Law School guide to VARA: “The legal remedies available for a violation of moral rights…range from a $500 minimum to a $20,000 maximum, increasing to $100,000 for willful infringements.” It could be argued that, had the artists been given time to rescue their works, they might have sold various pieces or donated them to exhibition spaces on the basis of their considerable cultural value.
Ultimately, the artworks that enlivened Wolkoff’s buildings are gone, and no court decision—not even a ruling in the artists’ favor—will resurrect them. But should the artists win the case, they’ll likely be compensated enough to move forward, comfortably, with their craft. The case will surely have implications for New York City street artists beyond the circumstances of 5Pointz’s demise.
Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip
meet our Local Insider
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A GUIDE?
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR JOB?
It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.
WHAT DESTINATION IS ON YOUR TRAVEL BUCKET-LIST?
I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!
Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.
KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?
Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world
Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.
Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.
Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.
Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.
We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.