In the heart Queens, New York stands a bright yellow building covered in elaborate graffiti street art. Street artists from all corners of the planet gather there to express themselves with bright spray paint. This building, known as “5Pointz” is famous for its unique beauty that attracts loads of tourists, or at least it used to. For years, the owner of the building allowed artists to go freestyle all over the walls. One night in 2013, he had a complete change of heart. The owner, Wolkoff, went over all the artwork with white paint. The damage is irreversible, 5Pointz would never be what it was ever again. Five years later, this landowner had to pay up, big time!
A Sudden Change of Heart
On February 12, 2018, a Judge specified precisely how this landlord needed to pay for his crime against the wall artists whose work disappeared under white paint. The judge, Frederic Block, awarded the artists $6.7 million in damages. Each of the 45 artists is to receive a check for 150,000 dollars from Wolkoff. That is the maximum amount of money a person can pay for damages. This ruling is not a just a victory for the artists of 5Pointz, its a win for street artists all over The United States. Street artists are continually battling to legitimize their work. They tried to explain that art is not confined to a picture frame and oil paint. Now street artists are confident that their work is protected.
Wolkoff’s change of heart came out of nowhere. For years he allowed people to rent apartments and paint the walls. Apparently, he got tired of the building’s artsy vibe and aimed to build luxury condos in its place. The artists caught word of Wolkoff’s plan for 5Points, the largest collection of exterior aerosol art, and protested. They hoped that VARA, the Visual Artists Rights Act was enough to protect their hard work. VARA protects recognized art, but Wolkoff just did not care. The owner destroyed the art before a judge decided what should happen with the art.
Here’s what the judge had to say about all the mayhem. “Rather than wait for the court’s opinion, Wolkoff destroyed almost all of the plaintiffs’ paintings by whitewashing them during that eight-day interim,” Block said. “The sloppy, half-hearted nature of the whitewashing left the works easily visible under thin layers of cheap, white paint, reminding the plaintiffs on a daily basis what had happened,” he added.
What This Ruling Really Means to Artists
The judge’s ruling gives validation to the artistic community of New York. This is not the first time a street artists work was destroyed by a landlord or real estate developer. At first, the artists of 5Pointz accepted their losses, but two years later they decided to stand up for their rights as artists. In 2015 they filed a suit against Wolkoff, and in 2017 a jury ruled in favor of the street artists. All that was left to do was for a judge to decide the extent of the damages and then determine how much Wolkoff needed to pay. His final ruling for the $6.7 million dollars fine gave the power to the artists.
The Judge Block explained that the damages were especially large because 5Points was more than an open wall for art. 5Pointz was a tourist attraction as well. “Since 5Pointz was a prominent tourist attraction the public would undoubtedly have thronged to say its goodbyes during those ten months and gaze at the formidable works of aerosol art for the last time,” Block said. “It would have been a wonderful tribute to the artists that they richly deserved.”
The attorney of the 5Pointz artists expressed how well-deserved this victory is for artists. “The court’s decision is a victory not only for the artists in this case but for artists all around the country,” Eric Baum said. “Aerosol art has been recognized as a fine art. The clear message is that art protected by federal law must be cherished and not destroyed. Anyone who violates the law will be held accountable and punished for the destruction.”