Graffiti has been governed by one rule ever since it exploded in the Bronx in the 1970s: If you paint over another artist’s work, what comes next must be better than what stood before. In the ephemeral world of graffiti, it was about as close to a law as there was.
Last week, a federal judge, Frederic Block, may have established legal precedent to the unwritten code. Jerry Wolkoff, the developer who owns the building known as 5Pointz in Long Island City, Queens, was fined $6.7 million for painting over the works of 21 graffiti artists. Even though Mr. Wolkoff owned the building that was painted, a jury found that under the Visual Arts Rights Act, the art was protected.
It was an odd and belated sense of validation for the graffiti artists, even though they sensed that Mr. Wolkoff’s legal team underestimated the art form.
“I think going into this, he didn’t realize how organized we were,” said Carlos Game, 47, one of the artists seeking damages. “They forget that these aren’t little kids. These ‘kids’ are 47 years old. They run businesses, they have businesses.”
Still, the artists were stunned by the size of the award issued by Judge Block. The $6.7 million was the maximum penalty, based on $150,000 for each of the 45 works the judge deemed worthy of protection.
The derelict warehouse had been a legal graffiti haven for years, but was christened 5Pointz in 2002. A graffiti artist named Jonathan Cohen (his tag was Meres One) came to an agreement with Mr. Wolkoff to allow artists to paint there. The site was described during the trial by the artists’ lawyer Eric Baum as “the world’s largest open-air aerosol museum,” and artists flocked from around the world to paint its walls. Each piece, done for free, was a labor of love.
“I wouldn’t mind seeing my artwork go down with the building,” William Tramontozzi, 42, said. He got into graffiti in the 1980s, and he painted at 5Pointz well before it was called 5Pointz. There was something romantic, he said, about the thing he loved going down with the place he loved.
The way the art was destroyed, however, was most upsetting. Mr. Wolkoff, intending to raze the building to build condominiums, hired a team to whitewash the building at night. But the warehouse remained standing for nearly a year after the graffiti had been destroyed. It seemed to the artists to be a deliberate insult to the thousands of hours of work put into the murals. Judge Block thought so as well.
“If not for Wolkoff’s insolence, these damages would not have been assessed,” the judge said at the ruling. “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.”
It was the fact that galvanized the artists as well. “It gave the vibe to everyone that our art was worthless,” Mr. Tramontozzi said.
“Still to this day, I don’t know why he did that,” Mr. Cohen said. “If you find out, let me know.”
Mr. Wolkoff, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment, has yet to file an appeal.
Dean Nicyper, a New York-based lawyer specializing in art law, considers last week’s ruling to be a landmark decision.
“But I do think the breadth of the decision might be somewhat limited,” he said. “It’s limited to cases where people have created their art on a structure with permission.”
Mr. Nicyper said he believes the decision may have been different if Mr. Wolkoff had not granted the artists permission. It could also hinder graffiti artists in the future. “Does this create a chilling effect?” Mr. Nicyper asked. “Building owners are going to be reluctant to give permission.”
Mr. Cohen nonetheless felt vindicated. “A federal judge said that the act of lettering is a valid art,” he said. “Even though he couldn’t understand the lettering, he respected it as art. That’s amazing, that’s groundbreaking.”
The location was crucial to the artwork, Mr. Game said.
“It was a place where you were being taught, and in a weird way, being challenged,” Mr. Game said. “People made masterpieces out there.”
And yet the fact remains that 5Pointz is gone, and few of the artists expected anything to replace it.
“Graffiti is one of the only art forms that was created in New York City,” Mr. Tramontozzi said. “It’s a crime against the culture of the city.”
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