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.

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.