New York Judge Rules Graffiti Is Protected Public Art

Landmark judgement results in $6.7 million in damages awarded to 21 graffiti artists for destroyed murals.

A judge ruled that a real estate developer who destroyed graffiti murals at the famed 5Pointz building in Queens, New York was in violation of the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), awarding 21 street artists with $6.75 million in damages.

The judgement is a landmark ruling, in that it was the first instance where graffiti artists have received a successful judgement in a VARA lawsuit. The lawsuit has been closely followed in the street art scene. As case law is predicated upon past precedent, graffiti artists are hoping that the 5Pointz ruling will be held as a landmark decision that could potentially protect their (often unsanctioned) work.

Image: FLICKR / changsterdam

Jerry Wolkoff purchased the former factory building built in 1892 at 45-46 Davis Street in Long Island City in the 1970s. Wolkoff initially leased small spaces in the building to industrial companies, before eventually subdividing out spaces as artists’ studios in the late 1990s under the name Crane Street Studios. In 2002, graffiti artist Jonathan Cohen (known as Meres One) approached Wolkoff with the idea to curate murals by graffiti artists and adorn the building’s exterior with what would come to be described as “the world’s premier graffiti mecca”. Wolkoff had always made clear that allowing for graffiti to be applied to the building was for temporary purposes, and that one day the complex would be redeveloped.

Image: FLICKR / NYConstructionPhoto

Wolkoff officially filed plans and gained approval in 2013 to redevelop the property. The $400 million development proposal called for the demolition of the existing buildings on site, which would be replaced by two 40-plus story towers- comprising 1,115 residential units (223 of which would be classified as affordable apartments), 20 art studios, 40,000 square feet of commercial space, parking, a public park and public art that paid homage to the original complex’s famed street art.

On November 18th, 2013 Wolkoff whitewashed over the building’s facade overnight without notice, effectively removing the nearly 11,000 individual pieces of art that adorned the building. In 2014, demolition of the buildings had commenced in anticipation of the site’s redevelopment. Artists, who had previously lost a request to attain landmark status for the now demolished buildings, filed the VARA lawsuit in April of 2017 claiming that they did not receive 90 days’ notice of the building’s demolition. VARA doesn’t force owners to keep art indefinitely, but it does require property owners to give artists 90 days’ notice of their intentions so the artists can arrange removal themselves. The artists’ claim that they had no opportunity to remove or document their work seemingly held weight with the case’s presiding judge, Frederick Block.

In the decision, the Block determined that “If not for Wolkoff’s insolence, these damages would not have been assessed. If he did not destroy 5Pointz until he received his permits and demolished it 10 months later, the court would not have found that he had acted willfully.”

NEXT: How has the Visual Artists Right Act Protected Public Art In The Past?