Nation

N.Y. landlord obliterated dozens of graffiti murals. Now he owes the artists $6.7 million.

A federal judge on Monday awarded $6.7 million to graffiti artists who sued after dozens of spray paintings were destroyed when dilapidated warehouse buildings Long Island City, N.Y., were torn down to make room for high-rise luxury residences.
Frank Franklin II/Associated Press/File 2011
A federal judge on Monday awarded $6.7 million to graffiti artists who sued after dozens of spray paintings were destroyed when dilapidated warehouse buildings Long Island City, N.Y., were torn down to make room for high-rise luxury residences.

From the elevated 7-train, millions of people passing through Long Island City, Queens, could spot the massive warehouses. Five stories high, the buildings took up most of a city block. But that’s not the only reason the complex was hard to miss.

Its bright yellow walls were covered with hundreds of graffiti murals: colorful bubble letters, fantastical creatures, mesmerizing portraits, and tributes to legendary musicians. Known as 5Pointz, it was a graffiti mecca. Aerosol artists would travel from around the world to use its walls as canvases — legally. Busloads of tourists or students on field trips would frequent 5Pointz daily. It was used as a backdrop for movies and music videos, weddings and concerts.

5pointz transformed dilapidated warehouses and a previously crime-infested neighborhood into a renowned cultural landmark — the country’s ‘‘largest collection of exterior aerosol art,’’ as a court document noted.

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Virtually overnight, nearly all of it was destroyed. Under the cloak of night in 2013, the building’s owners instructed a team to blanket the murals with white paint. The warehouses would be torn down a year later to make way for high-rise luxury residences.

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Artist Akiko Miyakami later testified that when she saw her artwork mutilated under a layer of white paint, she felt like she ‘‘was raped.’’

On Monday, a federal judge in Brooklyn awarded $6.7 million in damages to 21 artists whose works were obliterated at 5Pointz.

The judge’s ruling came after a milestone three-week trial in November in US District Court in Brooklyn. The case marked the first time a court has been asked to determine whether graffiti — with its ephemeral nature — should be considered art protected under federal law, according to a court opinion. It weighed a property owner’s rights against the rights of visual artists — in a city where the powerful real estate and art worlds are already constantly at odds.

A jury found in November that 36 of the plaintiffs’ 40 works of art at 5Pointz should be protected under the Visual Artists Rights Act, deciding that the murals had achieved ‘‘recognized stature’’

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The jury’s decision served as a recommendation for the federal judge presiding the case, Frederic Block, who delivered his decision on Monday. Block ruled that an additional nine works of art should be protected by law, bringing the total to 45.

He awarded the artists the maximum damages possible, saying the building’s owner, Jerry Wolkoff, ‘‘willfully’’ ruined the artwork and showed no remorse for his ‘‘recalcitrant behavior.’’

‘‘He was bent on doing it his way, and just as he ignored the artists’ rights he also ignored the many efforts the court painstakingly made to try to have him responsively answer the questions posed to him,’’ Block wrote in his impassioned opinion. ‘‘Wolkoff has been singularly unrepentant.’’

More than a decade before the artists and their landlord were at odds, the two parties once enjoyed a thriving partnership. In the 1990s, Wolkoff rented studios in the warehouse complex to local artists. He also began allowing graffiti artists to spray paint on the building walls. But there was not much order or control over the quality of the work — until one tenant, Jonathan Cohen, took charge.

Cohen, a local artist known as Meres One, became the unpaid curator of what would become 5Pointz. Cohen organized a creative system in which aerosol artists would compete for prominent placement on the walls, according to court documents.

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He divided up the space into two different areas: short-term walls, which catered to beginner artists and would be painted over on a rotating basis; and long-term walls, which were permanent.

Wolkoff gave Cohen and hundreds of other artists full reign to paint whatever they pleased, with only three exceptions: no religion, politics, or sex. Artists poured in from all over the world and all backgrounds.

‘‘5Pointz was an egalitarian place,’’ Block, the judge, wrote. ‘‘Some artists came from highly prestigious art schools; others were self-taught. Some were fixtures in elite, traditional art circles; others were simply dedicated to street and community art.’’

Images of some of their works, Block added, ‘‘reflect striking technical and artistic mastery and vision worthy of display in prominent museums if not on the walls of 5Pointz.’’

When the artists got wind of the landlord’s plans to replace the warehouses with high-rise luxury condos, they launched a campaign to try to save 5Pointz. Cohen filed an application with the City Landmark Preservation Commission to preserve the site, but was rejected because the artistic work was too recent. He also tried to raise money to buy the property, but its value soon skyrocketed to more than $200 million.

Even Banksy, the reclusive and famed British street artist, made a plea during a trip to New York in 2013. ‘‘Save 5Pointz,’’ he wrote.

As a final resort, Cohen tried to prevent the imminent demolition by seeking a preliminary injunction against Wolkoff under the Visual Artists Rights Act. The court denied the plaintiffs’ application for preliminary injunction, but said an opinion would come within eight days.

‘‘Rather than wait for the court’s opinion,’’ Block wrote. ‘‘Wolkoff destroyed almost all of the plaintiffs’ paintings by whitewashing them during that eight-day interim.’’

The landlord and his lawyer have contended that the artists knew for years that the buildings would ultimately be demolished. Wolkoff argued that even the artists themselves would destroy artwork by constantly rotating thousands of short-term murals, according to court documents.

But Block said Wolkoff should have put off demolishing the properties for at least 10 months, when he had all his permits. The judge said 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.’’

He blasted the abrupt way in which Wolkoff whitewashed the murals. If he had at least given the artists a warning, they could have ‘‘easily rescued’’ some of the paintings, 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,’’ Block said.

‘‘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,’’ Block concluded. ‘‘It would have been a wonderful tribute for the artists that they richly deserved.’’