Get Their Day in Court Over Destruction of Murals

A judge’s order will send to trial a suit by a group of graffiti artists against a real estate owner who destroyed their murals at the 5Pointz site in Queens, New York. After a four-year battle, Senior US District Judge Frederic Block’s order, filed March 31, grants the 5Pointz graffiti artists’ right to sue under the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990.

At issue is the former site of giant graffiti murals that covered a city block’s worth of warehouses in Western Queens, across the street from MoMA PS1. They attracted tourists by the busload and featured works by artists from as far away as Australia and Japan. Graffiti artists had been plastering the walls with their works since 1993.

Curated by a graffiti artist named Meres One (Jonathan Cohen) since 2002, the colorful murals were a reminder of a grittier past in a gentrified neighborhood bustling with new high-rise construction. The owner, G&M Realty’s Gerald Wolkoff, also rented out space to artists there at low cost.

When Wolkoff resolved to destroy the buildings to make way for a new residential development, artists brought suit to stop him in order to preserve their artworks, asserting a claim under VARA as well as “intentional infliction of emotional distress,” conversion, and property damage. Their case was thrown out, and, without warning one night during November 2013, the owners whitewashed the murals, erasing, as the artists’ spokeswoman told the New York Times, the work of at least 1,500 artists. The abrupt erasure allowed the artists no time to document or preserve their work.

A group of 17 artists brought another federal suit in US District Court for the Eastern District of New York in June, 2015, claiming that their work was protected under VARA, which provides for damages if the works are of “recognized stature,” typically determined by expert witnesses. The plaintiffs’ witness put forth corporate commissions and celebrity clients of some of the street artists, as well as museum professionals’ opinions and the artists’ online presence and press coverage, among other factors.