The 5 Pointz building was a world-famous haven for spray-paint artists, until it was whitewashed in 2013 and then torn down to make way for luxury apartments. Now the owner of the Long Island City property is in court defending himself against artists who say the demolition destroyed their property.
“The art has to be recognized as of value,” said Judge Frederic Block, explaining the central legal point to the jury. “You are going to hear experts testify, and they are not going to agree with each other.”
The law being argued over in the Eastern District Court of New York is the Visual Artists Rights Act, a federal statute passed in 1990 that, among other things, allows creators of artwork to “prevent any destruction of a work of recognized stature.” The jury will serve as art critics for the duration of the trial, as they attempt to assess the value of the art and thereby the volume of the fine or lack thereof.
In the 1990s, Jerry Wolkoff, the owner of a sprawling former factory on Davis Street, accepted a request for the building to be used for legal graffiti.
“It is amazing how they do this with a spray can,” the defense lawyer said in court today. “Jerry let them use his buildings as safe place to do their work, without looking over their shoulders.”
According to the defense, the artists produced 1,000 new works on the building per year. Wolkoff gave them free reign partly because he appreciated their work, and partly out of a lack of other economic activity. In the 1970s, Long Island City had been hit hard by deindustrialization that drove property values into the ground. The building itself was a water meter factory until 1972 when Neptune Meters Company relocated, leaving cheap land for Wolkoff to buy in hopes of a future rebound.
Eric Baum, the prosecuting attorney, explaining that the neighborhood gentrified “as the artists moved in and the criminals moved out.” By 2013, it had rebounded. The local economic development corporation was attempting to rebrand it as LIC and Wolkoff got permission to demolish the building and replace it with with luxury apartments.
The fortunes of the artists changed along with the building. Jonathan “Meres One” Cohen was born in the South Bronx, in 1973, and his artistic work was outside the law, up until the 1990s. His most ubiquitous piece is the “Bright Idea” lightbulb photographed above. In 2002, Cohen started to curate at 5 Pointz, and he’s now an internationally sought-after artist. According to the prosecuting attorney, all six plaintiffs started as illegal street artists before they started using 5 Pointz.
Their relationship with Wolkoff turned hostile in November of 2013, when, after receiving permission to tear down the building, he oversaw a team of workers that painted over the art inside.
In his opening argument, Baum maintained that this stealthy removal constituted a violation of the Visual Artists Rights Act’s requirement that artists receive 90 days of notice before the destruction of their work.
“They didn’t have 90 days notice, they had 20 years notice,” said the defense attorney, stating that artists had been using the facility with the understanding that it would eventually be demolished.
The defense also attacked the prosecution’s claims that the art had monetary value, citing the frequency with which the art on the building was painted over and the difficulty that any collector would have in removing the art from the building.
“He forgot about Banksy,” someone muttered from a group of the artists’ supporters, referring to the anonymous artist whose work has been removed to great profit. In 2013, Cohen called on Banksy to help 5 Pointz from being demolished, and Banksy ended his run in New York with a Long Island City piece and a message instructing everyone to “Save 5 Pointz.”
Whichever way the case goes, it will have serious implications for the valuation of an art form with ever more popularity and influence.