How artists graffitied one man’s property, made it famous, sued him when he knocked it down – and won $6.7m

The factory in Queens, New York City, where graffiti artists can express themselves legally. Image: Nigel Morris/Flickr/creative commons.

It’s an extraordinary tale with a whiff of Banksy about it, although surprisingly, he was not involved. In a landmark ruling, 21 New York street artists have sued and won $6.7m in damages from the owner of a building who destroyed their graffiti when he had the building demolished.

Following a three-week trial in November, on 12 February, Judge Frederic Block ruled against Jerry Wolkoff, owner of the 5Pointz complex in Queens, conferring the biggest award of $1.3m on the building’s mastermind-curator, graffiti artist Meres One, real name Jonathan Cohen.

5Pointz mastermind Jonathan Cohen, aka Meres One, who won $1.3m in the landmark court ruling. Image: Thee Erin/Flickr/creative commons.

The demolition of the former factory site turned graffiti mecca began in August 2014. The year before, artists had tried to oppose the warehouse’s destruction, but an attempt to win an injunction to prevent the owner from knocking it down was unsuccessful.


In the 1990s, Wolkoff had agreed to allow the derelict factory to be used as a showcase for local graffiti talent. Called the Phun Factory, it was later renamed 5Pointz by Meres One in 2002. Under the artist’s watchful eye, it evolved into an “aerosol art centre” and became famous the world over, a huge draw for graffiti aficionados and tourists alike.

In the end, Wolkoff profited from the graffiti and its destruction, when the value of the complex went up from $40m to $200m and permission to build luxury condos was obtained. Destroying 5Pointz, the judge stressed, permitted Wolkoff to realise that value.

Proper works of art

Judge Block accepted that 45 artworks at the centre of the case had “recognised stature” and must receive protection under the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), a piece of legislation which was introduced in the US in 1990 to protect artists’ moral rights – but has rarely been applied in their favour.

Credit: Kevin Wood/YouTube.

The rationale used by the court to confirm these artworks were of merit was crucial. To be considered such, works of art don’t need to be mentioned in academic publications or be considered masterpieces, as the expert for the property owner had argued.

It was enough, the judge said, for the 5Pointz artists to show their professional achievements in terms of residences, teaching positions, fellowships, public and private commissions as well as media coverage and social media presence.

Judge Block also carefully examined Wolkoff’s behaviour. The artworks – even those that could be easily removed as they had been placed on plywood panels – were whitewashed prior to demolition without giving artists the 90-day notice required by VARA. And the owner did so, the judge stressed, while conscious of the fact the artists were pursuing a VARA-based legal action. Such behaviour, the judge concluded, was not acceptable.

Such blatant disregard for an important legal provision pushed the judge to award the artists the maximum amount of damages allowable under the law. And although he did not grant the injunction requested by the artists in 2013, the judge had warned Wolkoff that he would be exposed to potentially high damages if the artworks were finally considered of “recognised stature”, as they were by the 12 February ruling.

5Pointz drew street art aficionados from all over the world with its wildly imaginative and inventive graffiti. Image: Paxti Moraleda/Flickr/creative commons.

The court also took into account that 5Pointz had become an attraction for visitors to New York, with busloads of tourists, schoolchildren and even weddings heading to the site. Also thanks to Meres One’s savvy stewardship for more than a decade, not only was the complex painted regularly by talented graffiti artists from all over the world, 5Pointz also attracted movie producers, advertising companies and bands, and was used as a location for the climax for the 2013 film Now You See Me.

The judge did not attach much importance to the fact that several artworks at 5Pointz were not meant to be permanent, an argument that had also been relied on by Wolkoff to claim that the pieces could not be protected. But the court reminded him that VARA protects both permanent and temporary art. This is an important provision of the law, especially when all that makes a work transient is the site owner’s expressed intention to remove it.

Art v property

This ruling may well embolden other graffiti artists to sue property owners who destroy artworks without following the correct procedure, even beyond the US. It may also make owners of buildings whose walls host graffiti more careful. Most important, the huge amount of damages awarded in this case will convince many that ignoring legal provisions and disregarding legitimate graffiti art is not a good idea. Judge Block made clear he awarded the maximum penalty allowable to deter other building owners from behaving in the same disrespectful way as Wolkoff.

5Pointz in Queens was an old factory that was turned into an aerosol art centre. Image: P Lindgren/creative commons.

Finally, the decision clearly marks the evolution of graffiti and street art, long considered to be temporary or transient artforms. It is now clear that artistic movements such as these aim to become more permanent forms of art, and that they have achieved a status similar to the one traditionally held by works of “fine art”.

The ConversationSo the gap between “street art” and “fine art” is narrowing. As 5Pointz curator Meres One put it: “This case will probably change the way art is perceived for generations to come.”

Enrico Bonadio, Senior Lecturer in Law, City, University of London.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.