This Washington Post headline caught my eye: “NY landlord obliterates dozens of graffiti murals. Now he owes the artists 6.7 million dollars.” Graffiti murals? Where? What subjects? Who painted them? 6.7 Million dollars? Wow! I'd like to know more.
From the elevated 7-train, millions of people traveling by subway through Long Island City, Queens, passed the five-story massive warehouses known as 5Pointz. The outer walls of those buildings were covered with graffiti: colorful bubble letters; fantastical creatures; mesmerizing portraits; and tributes to legendary musicians.
In the 1990s, Jerry Wolkoff who owned these warehouses rented studios in the complex to local graffiti artists. He gave them full reign to spray the building walls and to paint whatever they pleased, with only three exceptions: no religion, politics or sex. Aerosol artists and writers traveled from Canada, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Japan, Brazil, and all over the United States to use its walls as canvasses — legally.
The artists and their landlord enjoyed a thriving partnership. 5Pointz transformed dilapidated warehouses and a previously crime-infested neighborhood into a renowned cultural landmark — the country’s largest collection of exterior aerosol art. Movies, music videos, weddings and concerts used 5Pointz as a backdrop. Busloads of tourists and students on field trips visited regularly.
But one day the buildings’ owner notified the artists that the warehouses were to be torn down to make way for high-rise luxury residences. When the artists learned of the plans they launched a campaign to try to save 5Pointz. They filed an application with the City Landmark Preservation Commission but it was rejected because the art work was too new. They also tried to raise money to buy the property, but its value soon skyrocketed to more than 200 million dollars. So with nothing to lose, the artists filed a federal case against the owner.
The case marked the first time a court was asked to determine whether graffiti — with its ephemeral nature — should be considered art, and be protected under federal law. It weighed a property owner’s rights against the rights of visual artists.
Then one night, under cover of darkness, the buildings’ owner instructed a team to paint over the murals. Nearly all the graffiti was destroyed. Artist Akiko Miyakami testified in court that when she saw her artwork mutilated under a layer of white paint, she felt “bereft.”
The landlord and his lawyer contended that the artists knew for years that the buildings would eventually be demolished. Wolkoff argued that even the artists themselves would destroy artwork by constantly painting over thousands of short-term murals themselves. But after a three-week trial, a federal judge awarded 6.7 million dollars in damages to 21 artists whose works were obliterated at 5Pointz. The court decided that the murals had achieved “recognized stature” and were protected under the Visual Artists Rights Act.
Federal judge, Frederic Block ruled that Wolkoff should have put off demolishing the properties for at least 10 months until he had all his permits. He criticized the abrupt way in which the murals were whitewashed and awarded the artists the maximum damages possible. Block wrote an impassioned opinion:
“Wolkoff’s precipitous conduct . . . was an act of pure pique and revenge for the nerve of the plaintiffs to sue to attempt to prevent the destruction of their art.”
“The shame of it all is that since 5Pointz was a prominent tourist attraction the public would undoubtedly have thronged to say its goodbyes during those 10 months and gaze at the formidable works of aerosol art for the last time. It would have been a tribute for the artists that they richly deserved.”
I have no argument for or against the ruling; it just feels unsatisfying. Art was destroyed. A property owner’s good deeds were forgotten. People who once collaborated to create something wonderful sued one another.
Does a money award ever compensate this kind of loss?
I feel sad.
Sources: About.com, Samantha Schmidt, Document, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York.