Art Market

An appeals court ordered the developer who whitewashed 5Pointz to pay artists $6.75 million.

Daria Simone Harper
Feb 21, 2020 5:25PM, via Courthouse News

The 5Pointz graffiti center in 2011. Photo by P.Lindgren, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a judgement of $6.75 million against a luxury real estate developer on Thursday, confirming that his whitewashing of graffiti murals at the 5Pointz art complex in 2013 violated the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA).

Thursday’s 32-page ruling stated that VARA “grants visual artists certain ‘moral rights’ in their work” and “affords artists the right to prevent destruction of their work if that work has achieved ‘recognized stature’.” The landmark decision affirmed a lower court’s ruling in 2018 that the developer pay 21 artists who’d created work at 5Pointz $6.75 million.

U.S. Circuit Judge Barrington Daniels Parker Jr. wrote on behalf of a three-judge panel, stating: “The statute recognizes that, unlike novelists or composers, for example, visual artists depend on the integrity of the physical manifestations of their works.”

5Pointz began around 2002 when developer Gerald Wolkoff teamed up with aerosol artist Jonathan “Meres One” Cohen to create work on warehouse buildings he owned in Long Island City, Queens. The buzz surrounding 5Pointz grew as Cohen invited some of the world’s most famous graffiti artists to work there, but in 2013 things changed. The artists discovered that Wolkoff was planning to tear down the warehouses to replace them with luxury condos.

Wolkoff proceeded to whitewash the buildings, erasing countless graffiti murals overnight. A jury found Wolkoff liable for his destruction of the work, as VARA requires that artists receive 90 days’ notice before their art is destroyed. Though Wolkoff argued that the quality of the graffiti art did not match the standards of VARA, the court finally decided to uphold the judgement against him.

Judge Parker wrote:

Since recognized stature is necessarily a fluid concept, we can conceive of circumstances under which, for example, a ‘poor’ work by a highly regarded artist — e.g., anything by Monet — nonetheless merits protection from destruction under VARA.
Daria Simone Harper