By Bill Parry
The leader of the 5Pointz artists is hailing the federal judge in Brooklyn who ruled in their favor Monday, forcing developer Jerry Wolkoff to pay $6.7 million in compensation for ordering the whitewashing of the world famous graffiti mecca in November 2013.
In his 100-page decision, Judge Frederick Block awarded the maximum of $150,000 for each of 45 murals that were destroyed in the dark of night without warning at the Long Island City warehouse complex that was torn down a year later to make way for two residential towers.
“The legacy of 5Pointz may be this ruling and the clear statement that aerosol art and public art are not disposable. The 21 plaintiffs, including myself, believed in the law and stood up for our rights, we believed in the value of our art and we were heard,” 5Pointz Founder and Curator Jonathan “Meres” Cohen said. “The art adorning 5Pointz is gone and can never be replaced, the 7 train commute will never be the same, but Honorable Judge Block’s judgement is historical for generations of artists all around the country. 5Pointz art was a true form of free speech, and this ruling honors this great American tradition of standing up for our rights.”
The ruling followed a three-week trial at Federal District Court in November with a jury finding Wolkoff had violated the federal Visual Artists Rights Act which was enacted in 1990, granting artists the rights to prevent intentional modification of their visual artworks and the destruction or mutilation of artworks “of a recognized stature.” It is the first time VARA has been used to protect aerosol artwork.
In his decision, Judge Block wrote, “If not for Wolkoff’s insolence, these damages would not have been assessed. If he did not destroy 5Pointz until he received his permits and demolished it 10 months later, the Court would not have found that he had acted willfully.”
Wolkoff was stunned by the judge’s ruling.
“What permits?” he asked. “Have you ever had to deal with the City of New York? I could have waited years for those permits. It’s an insane decision and I’m going to go through the appeal process. Why would he think any differently if it was two days or six months? I’ll appeal it and we’ll go from there.”
Court documents labeled Wolkoff a “difficult witness” who was argumentative and prone to tangents and non-responsive answers.
“I was going insane, I couldn’t believe I was there, in a courtroom being sued by people I allowed to paint on my building,” Wolkoff said. “I had no idea why I was being sued in the first place.”
Block, meanwhile, praised the artists who “have conducted themselves with dignity, maturity, respect, and at all times within the law” adding their behavior contributed to his decision to award them significant damages.
“This legal process was trying and difficult on all of us but in the end to see the rights of art prevail in New York City is extremely rewarding and emotional,” Cohen said. “As a curator seeing over 10 years of my work recognized and valued, and knowing that justice sided with the artists who selflessly painted at 5Pointz, is the biggest victory.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr