Money can’t bring back 5Pointz—the bright yellow warehouse in Queens that became a "graffiti mecca" for street artists from around the world. When the building's owner, Gerald Wolkoff, unceremoniously whitewashed its art-covered walls one night in 2013, an unparalleled cache of world-class street art was irreversibly destroyed.
But in a landmark ruling on Monday, a judge awarded $6.7 million in damages to 21 of the artists whose work was obliterated, the Washington Post reports. In his 100-page decision, Judge Frederic Block ordered Wolkoff to pay $150,000 for each of the 45 works destroyed—the maximum damages possible. His ruling represents a decisive victory for street artists in the fight to legitimize and protect their work.
After years of renting out the building to artists, letting them spray paint the building's walls, Wolkoff moved to tear down what had become the country's "largest collection of exterior aerosol art" to build luxury condos. The artists tried to stop Wolkoff under the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA)—which protects "works of recognized stature"—but the owner destroyed the artwork before a court decision was made.
"Rather than wait for the court’s opinion, Wolkoff destroyed almost all of the plaintiffs' paintings by whitewashing them during that eight-day interim," Block said. "The sloppy, half-hearted nature of the whitewashing left the works easily visible under thin layers of cheap, white paint, reminding the plaintiffs on a daily basis what had happened," he added.
The outcome of the landmark case validates the outrage felt by New York City’s artistic community, which is accustomed to being displaced by the interests of real estate developers. In June 2015, the artists brought a suit against Wolkoff, seeking cash damages for the "devastating losses" caused by the destruction of their murals. In November 2017, a jury ruled in favor of the artists, but it remained up to a judge to determine the extent of the damages. Judge Block's ruling sets a powerful precedent by recognizing ephemeral work like graffiti as art with material value.
"Since 5Pointz was a prominent tourist attraction the public would undoubtedly have thronged to say its goodbyes during those ten months and gaze at the formidable works of aerosol art for the last time," Block said. "It would have been a wonderful tribute for the artists that they richly deserved."
"The court’s decision is a victory not only for the artists in this case, but for artists all around the country," 5Pointz attorney Eric Baum told artnet News. "Aerosol art has been recognized as a fine art. The clear message is that art protected by federal law must be cherished and not destroyed. Anyone who violates the law will be held accountable and punished for the destruction."
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