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.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how Copenhagen puts cyclists at the top of the social hierarchy

A cyclist in Copenhagen, obviously. Image: Red Bull/Getty.

Have you ever wondered why Britain is not a nation of cyclists? Why we prefer to sit in traffic as our Dutch and Danish neighbours speed through the city on bikes?

Forget about hills, rain, and urban sprawl: the real reason we aren’t cycling is much closer to home. It is not just lack of infrastructure, or lack of fitness, the reason that 66 per cent of Brits cycle less than once a year, is because of status.

An obsession with social status is hard-wired into our brains. As we have built a society that relies on cars, the bicycle has slipped to the periphery, and gone from being regarded as a sensible mode of transport, to a deviant fringe-dwellers choice.

Even though cycling to work has been shown to be one of the most effective things an individual can do to improve health and longevity, researcher David Horton thinks that there are a set of collective anxieties that are stopping us getting in the saddle. These include not just an unwillingness to be made vulnerable, but fear of being thought of as poor.

A quick look over the North Sea shows that there is an alternative. Danish culture has elevated cycling to the point of reverence, and the social status of cyclists has followed. As we have busied ourselves building infrastructure that testifies to the dominance of the car, Denmark has been creating magnificent architectural features, aimed specifically at bike users. The Cycle Snake, or Cykelslangen, literally suspends the cyclist above the city, metaphorically elevating the cyclist and creating a sense of ceremony.

In doing so, they are subtly persuading people of all backgrounds to see past their prejudices or fears and take it up as the clearly better choice. This means there are more women cycling, more older people cycling, and more ethnic minorities cycling. The activity is less dominated by comfortably middle class white males: there are cyclists from every side of the community.  

The Cykelslangen, under construction in 2014. Image: Ursula Bach and Dissing+Weitling architecture.

Despite abstract motivations like getting ripped and conquering global warming, it is only when the bike path becomes the obviously better choice that people will start to cycle. It can take years of traffic jams before people try an alternative, but if you make motorists jealous of cyclists, then the tables can quickly turn.

Another way that Copenhagen has done this is by taking privileges normally afforded only to the motorcar, and given them to the bike. The city has ensured that cycle routes do not include blind corners or dark tunnels, and that they form a complete, coherent network, and a steadily flowing system – one that allows cyclists to maintain a reasonable pace, and minimises the amount of times you have to put your foot down.

The ‘Green Wave’, for example, is a co-ordinated traffic light system on some of the main thoroughfares of the capital that helps minimise the amount of cycle congestion during peak times. It maintains a steady flow of cycle traffic, so that there is no need to stop at any point.


Small measures of prioritisation like this one increase the sense of safety and consideration that cyclists experience, making it natural for the citizens of a city to act in their own self-interest and get on their bike.

As well as redefining the streets around the bicycle, the Copenhagen Cycle Chic blog positively fetishises cyclists. The tagline “dress for your destination, not your journey” depicts the social fashion life of the cycle lane as a “never ending flow of happy people heading from A to B”. Its writers are  literally making cycling sexy, dispelling the idea that going anywhere by bike is odd, and helping the world to see that the bicycle is actually the ultimate fashion accessory.

So unlike in London, where cycling is still a predominantly male pursuit, Copenhagen sees a more even split between men and women. Not just because they feel safer on the roads, but because culturally they are comfortable with their appearance as part of a highly visible group.

So while our low level of cycling is partly due to our physical infrastructure, it is also due to our cultural attitudes. The mental roadblocks people have towards cycling can be overcome by infrastructure that is not only safe, but also brings old-fashioned notions of dignity and grace into the daily commute.

Of course, office shower facilities might stop cyclists being ostracised, too.