Judge Rules Graffiti Is Art, Awards Artists $6.7M For Destroyed 5Pointz Murals In Queens

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A federal Brooklyn judge has ruled that graffiti is art. The case in question saw 21 artists awarded $6.7 million after their work was destroyed.

Part Of The Neighborhood

The landmark trial focused on a site at the iconic 5Pointz complex in Long Island City, Queens. The artists in question sued after nearly 50 spray-painted murals were carelessly destroyed, without any warning. The works were showcased on the walls of dilapidated warehouses, which were painted over before being subsequently torn down a year later to make way for planned high-rise luxury residences.

The artists had hoped to purchase the buildings themselves, before the prices soared into the hundreds of millions. Their artworks had previously been something of a tourist attraction, reportedly drawing thousands of spectators daily. They were even featured prominently in the 2013 magician heist movie Now You See Me. The area itself also gradually improved as a result, with the influx of visitors and attention paid to it leading to less crime overall.

Back in November, a civil jury found that real estate developer Jerry Wolkoff, who owns the complex, had broken the law when he whitewashed the murals. Wolkoff's lawyers argued that he could do what he wanted with his buildings.

However, the jury found him in violation of the Visual Artists Rights Act, or V.A.R.A., a 1990 federal law which protects public artworks of recognized stature even if they're created on property that is owned by somebody else. The $6.7 million awarded Monday, Feb. 12, was the maximum possible amount for a violation of V.A.R.A.

On Monday, Judge Frederic Block upheld the jury's decision, expanding it to account for 45 out of the 49 murals in question when they had initially only advised on 36. Block ruled that the majority of murals on-site were of significant enough artistic stature as to merit being protected by law. He also noted that they were destroyed by a landlord who didn't care about their merit, or their meaning to the community.

He advised that Wolkoff was not sorry for destroying the artists' work.

"Wolkoff has been singularly unrepentant. He was given multiple opportunities to admit the whitewashing was a mistake, show remorse, or suggest he would do things differently if he had another chance. Wolkoff could care less. As he callously testified," Block said.

Art Versus Commerce

The so-called 5Pointz case pitted two of New York City's most powerful and prominent sectors against each other. On one side, the real estate world, which felt it should be able to do whatever it sees fit with its properties. On the other, the art world, which wishes to protect that which it deems worthy of greater appreciation.

Judge Block's ruling was a victory for the art world, according to Dean Nicyper, a partner at firm Withers Bergman specializing in art law. Nicyper pointed out that, although there have been other examples of graffiti artists being recognized as deserving of legal protection, the 5Pointz case was the first incident of such artists being protected under V.A.R.A. specifically.

"[This is] a victory not only for the artists in this case, but for artists all around the country," said Eric Baum, a lawyer for the artists.

"The clear message is that art protected by federal law must be cherished and not destroyed. With this win, the spirit of 5Pointz becomes a legacy for generations of artists to come," he added.

Judge Block said he hoped the ruling would give more weight to V.A.R.A., and set a precedent going forward. The law should have kept Wolkoff from destroying the murals before he had all his permits in order, or before he'd told the artists in question. In future, maybe more art can be saved via this method.

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