A New York appeals court has upheld a landmark decision made in 2018, which awarded street artists $6.75 million (£5.2 million) in damages for the destruction of their artworks at the 5 Pointz graffiti mecca.
“It’s just complete vindication,” announced expert Renee Vara, who testified at trial for the 21 plaintiffs suing real estate developer Gerald Wolkoff for violating their rights.
Wolkoff had once been a supporter of aerosol art, striking a deal in 2002 with graffiti artist Jonathan Cohen to transform his Long Island City warehouses into vibrant exhibition spaces. Cohen, known as Meres One, revolutionised the stark buildings, which became a haven for street artists from the Queens area and beyond.
“Cohen and other artists rented studio spaces in the warehouses and filled the walls with aerosol art, with Cohen serving as curator,” explained Vara. “Under Cohen’s leadership, [5Pointz]… evolved into a major global centre for aerosol art. It attracted thousands of daily visitors, numerous celebrities, and extensive media coverage.”
But without warning or consent, Wolkoff completely whitewashed their work in 2013. He began to conceal the graffiti in preparation for the construction of luxury condos, although at the time demolition permits for the buildings had not yet been granted.
“What’s super disrespectful is that the whole thing about 5 Pointz is: it’s legal painting,” asserted 5 Pointz volunteer Rebekah Kennedy following the destruction. “For someone to come in and wash it away … that’s the biggest vandal.”
Four years later a jury unanimously ruled in favour of the artists and the Brooklyn Supreme Court awarded the maximum damages possible under the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA). This was the first time graffiti artists had triumphed in a VARA lawsuit. The act grants visual artists certain “moral rights” for their work and protects against actions considered harmful to an artist’s reputation.
“The clear message is that art protected by federal law must be cherished and not destroyed,” said Eric Baum, a lawyer for the artists, after the initial announcement. “With this win, the spirit of 5Pointz becomes a legacy for generations of artists to come.”
In his subsequent appeal, the disgruntled Wolkoff challenged almost every argument outlined in the 2018 judgment. This included the artworks’ protection under the “recognized stature” clause, yet even his own experts “acknowledged that temporary artwork can achieve recognized stature” according to the 32-page decision.
By rebuffing Wolkoff’s appeal, the US court is continuing to set a remarkable precedent for future legal cases involving street art. “In these circumstances, a maximum statutory award could serve to deter Wolkoff from future violations of VARA,” the decision declared. “It could further encourage other building owners to negotiate in good faith with artists whose works are incorporated into structures.”