5Pointz artists sue developer while August Martin project opens to the public

By Bill Parry

Attorneys for nine of the 5Pointz artists filed a federal lawsuit seeking punitive damages against developer Jerry Wolkoff and his son David for ordering workers to whitewash the graffiti mecca Nov. 19, 2013.

The lawsuit, filed in United States District Court in Brooklyn last Friday, claims the whitewashing was done in a “disgracefully crude, unprofessional manner,” according to the complaint. The artists maintain they had no prior warning of the owner’s plans and no time to “remove and preserve their work,” the complaint continued.

“Our clients seek justice for their unlawful destruction of their artwork,” Attorney Eric Baum of Eisenberg & Baum said.

Jerry Wolkoff, who demolished the warehouse complex last summer to build two luxury residential towers, called the lawsuit “despicable” and shocking. “They say if I gave them time, they could’ve saved their work for museums?” Wolkoff asked Monday. “They knew that building was coming down for years.”

5Pointz creator Jonathan “Meres” Cohen did not want to discuss the lawsuit, preferring to let the lawyers do the talking. He joined co-curator Marie Cecil Flageul and several other aerosol artists at August Martin High School in Jamaica for an open house June 11 as the public was allowed to view “Operation Skittles,” a student-led project that brought colorful street art to the school’s walls.

On the weekend of May 9-10, nearly 150 of the artists reunited in Queens for the first time in the 19 months since 5Pointz was whitewashed. The artists donated their time, talent and nearly $40,000 of their own supplies over a two-week period, creating nearly 150 murals in the hallways and stairwells in an effort to inspire students.

Syreeta Gates, a Dream Director assigned to the school by the non-profit Future Project, a national campaign to empower young people, says in the six weeks since the project began, the excitement among the students has not diminished.

“The novelty hasn’t worn off at all. The art created a sense of pride in a way that wasn’t there before,” Gates said.

“It’s very inspiring with all the portraits of artists and singers,” Precious Brown, a junior, said. “It makes me want to do something big one day so I can get on the wall myself.”

Freshman Timothy Williams said, “I’m glad the public can come and see what we’ve done herel.”

The enthusiasm has spread to the faculty. “I’ve seen a difference in my classroom where I’ve had 100 percent attendance,” culinary arts teacher Lorraine Baker-Simon said.

Meres knew how much it meant to the students when a month and a half later there was no graffiti on the street art inside the school. “I’m glad there’s no writing. That means they like it and it makes them proud,” he said.

Known as “the worst school in New York,” August Martin’s graduation rate has been stuck at 39 percent for the last two years.

“We want to see that number climb to 51 percent by next year,” Flageul said. “Word is spreading of the early success of this project. I’ve heard from 46 public schools around the five boroughs and one French high school that used to tour 5Pointz every summer. ”

Meanwhile, the old 5Pointz site at 22-44 Jackson Ave. in Long Island City, is now an active construction site. Wolkoff said his buildings will be called 5Pointz despite two denials of application at the U.S. Patent and Trademarks office.

“I’m not going to trademark it. I’m just going to use it,” he said.

Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparry@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4538.

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