By Bill Parry
The 5Pointz artists, who had their hearts crushed in November 2013 when the owner of the building that hosted them for more than two decades ordered their work whitewashed in the dead of night, will have their shot at revenge.
Brooklyn Federal District Court Judge Frederick Block handed 23 of the artists a victory in their lawsuit against developer G&M Realty, owned by Jerry Wolkoff and his son David, on March 31 when he ordered their case would go to trial next month.
A jury will decide if the whitewashed artwork at the now-demolished, world-famous graffiti mecca in Long Island City falls under the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, which provides for damages if the works are of “recognized stature.” In 2013, the Wolkoffs told 5Pointz curator Jonathan “Meres” Cohen that they intended to tear down the old warehouse complex at 45-46 Davis St. and build two luxury towers in its place. The artists sued to stop them, seeking protection under VARA in an attempt to preserve the 350 murals that covered the building’s walls.
The same judge listened to arguments and testimony for three days before deciding the rule of law was on the side of the owners and their right to develop the property. Once the restraining order was lifted, Jerry Wolkoff ordered the whitewashing.
Cohen was furious, claiming Wolkoff destroyed “priceless pieces” in what was “the greatest art murder in history.”
The artists filed a new lawsuit in 2015, again under VARA, seeking damages for the destroyed work.
Now, two years later, with one of the towers rising 21 floors, the suit will go to trial.
While Cohen and the artists would not comment on advice of counsel, their representative said, “The artists are humbled and excited to get a jury trial and we are hoping the trial can be ground-breaking in art history.”
This is the first time VARA has been used in protection of graffiti art. Newspapers around the world, especially in graffiti-art hotbeds like Berlin and London, are watching.
Jerry Wolkoff has long held that the art was never permanent, and that the artists, themselves, painted over their own artwork all of the time.
“VARA means the art stays and can’t be destroyed, but they’ve done that for decades: Paint a piece, leave it for a few months, and than paint over it with a new piece,” Wolkoff said. “They did that themselves, over and over again for more than 20 years.”
He still can’t believe he is being sued by the artists.
“It’s my building and they always knew we planned to tear it down and develop,” Wolkoff said. “In fact, the only reason I whitewashed the building was I heard they were all going to encircle the building and hold hands and stop the bulldozers. So I whitewashed it to keep them from being arrested. I did them a favor, and they call me an art murderer.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr