Feb. 21, 2020 By Kristen Torres
A federal appeals court judge approved a $6.7 million award Thursday for nearly two dozen graffiti artists whose work was whitewashed to make way for luxury high-rises at a Long Island City complex previously known as 5Pointz.
Owner Jerry Wolkoff painted over the artists’ aerosol artwork– which was prominently displayed on his Davis Street warehouse buildings–in 2013. Twenty-one artists were part of the suit.
Appeals Court Judge Barrington Parker ruled that Wolkoff’s decision to erase the artwork was in violation of the Visual Artists Rights Act, which is a part of federal copyright law.
Judge Parker denounced nearly every part of Wolkoff’s argument against the artists, and even used Wolkoff’s expert’s words against him in the rebuttal.
“We see nothing in VARA that excludes temporary artwork from attaining recognized stature,” Parker wrote. “Unhelpful to this contention is the fact that Wolkoff’s own expert acknowledged that temporary artwork can achieve recognized stature.”
Wolkoff enlisted the help of Jonathan Cohen, also known as Meres One, in 2002 to turn his dilapidated warehouse buildings into exhibition space for artists.
Cohen, who served as curator, rented studio space in the warehouses alongside other artists.
5Pointz eventually evolved into a major global center for aerosol art under Cohen’s leadership, attracting “thousands of daily visitors, numerous celebrities and extensive media coverage,” according to court documents.
Wolkoff, however, sought city approval in 2013 to tear down the complex and replace it with luxury apartments. Many of the artists were protesting his plans at the time.
The artists filed suit in Brooklyn federal court to stop Wolkoff from demolishing the buildings in the summer of 2013 under VARA. The law grants artist the right to prevent destruction of their work if it has received “recognized stature.”
However, in November 2013 Wolkoff hired painters to whitewash the artwork in the middle of night. He banned the artists from the site and refused to allow them to recover any work that could be removed, according to court records.
The buildings were later demolished in 2014.
A jury ruled in favor of the artists in November 2017, and found that Wolkoff had “willfully” disregarded his requirement under the VARA to give the artists’ 90 days notice before destroying their work.
U.S. District Judge Frederic Block, who made the $6.7 million award in 2018, said in his decision that the sudden destruction of the artwork was an act of “revenge for the nerve of the plaintiffs to sue to attempt to prevent the destruction of their art.”
Eric Baum, the artists’ lawyer, said the Second Circuit’s decision Thursday is a “monumental win for the rights of all artists in this country.”
“This decision ensures that future artists and their moral rights will have the protections that they and their works of art rightfully deserve,” he added.