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Graffiti Grudge Goes to Federal Court

5Pointz was once an international graffiti icon. Now, aerosol artists are fighting the developer who tore it down

A graffiti-covered complex in Queens will soon be high-rise apartments. (IamNigelMorris - Flickr/Creative Commons)
smithsonian.com

When the owner of a Queens building complex covered with graffiti art tore it down, it was an act of commerce—the land is now slated for a high-rise development. But to the 23 artists whose graffiti graced the buildings’ walls, it was a crime against art. Now, reports Corey Kilgannon for The New York Times, they’ve banded together in what could become a landmark lawsuit.

While it still stood, the complex known as 5Pointz was an international icon of graffiti art—a collective of artists had used spray paint to turn a crumbling, one-time factory into a gigantic work of art. But in 2011 controversy erupted around the building when its owner, Jerry Wolkoff, decided to tear down the structure and replace it with high-rise towers. The decision prompted an outcry from the artists and from community members who saw the building not as an eyesore, but an art hub.

Protests and a power struggle followed, writes Kilgannon. Wolkoff, who originally had given the artists permission to paint on the walls of the building, then had much of the building whitewashed before the building was knocked down in 2014, Kilgannon reports. The artists fought back, filing a lawsuit that claimed Wolkoff did not provide sufficient notice of the demolition and that their work was protected under federal law.

A key justification for the artists’ lawsuit is the Visual Artists Rights Act, a 1990 law that protects the “moral rights” of artists. The law protects artists’ rights to their work on a building they do not own unless the owner has made a good-faith attempt to inform them of the art’s impending removal. It came into being after sculptor Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, an iconic steel sculpture, was cut into pieces and sent to a scrapyard in the middle of the night after a dispute over its removal. Today, WNYC’s John Passmore notes, the piece remains in storage.

Now it's been more than three years now since the 5Pointz lawsuit was first filed, reports Curbed's Hana R. Alberts. Wolkoff has since unsuccessfully attempted to trademark the 5Pointz name—the brainchild of one of the graffiti artists whose work he leveled—and courted controversy when he went back on his promise to employ union labor for the new project.

Will the artists succeed in convincing the judge that their rights to their “aerosal art” should have been protected? Only time will tell. In the meantime, there are still a few ways to see some of the art that was destroyed. Click here to watch a short documentary on the building and its demolition, or check out some images of the Institute of Higher Burning, as 5Pointz was nicknamed, at the Google Cultural Institute.

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