A judge awarded $6.7 million Monday to graffiti artists who sued after dozens of spray paintings were destroyed on the walls of dilapidated warehouse buildings torn down to make room for luxury high-rise residences.
U.S. District Judge Frederic Block in Brooklyn said 45 of the 49 paintings were recognized works of art ‘wrongfully and willfully destroyed’ by a remorseless landlord.
Twenty-one aerosol artists had sued the owner of a Long Island City, Queens, site known as 5Pointz under the Visual Rights Act, a 1990 federal law that protects artists’ rights even if someone else owns the physical artwork.
Their graffiti was painted over in 2013, and the buildings were torn down a year later.
People explore the outside of the 5 Pointz Building, a landmark in the New York graffiti scene that has attracted artists from around the globe, on October 28, 2013 in the Long Island City neighborhood of the Queens
U.S. District Judge Frederic Block awarded $6.7 million to graffiti artists who sued after their work was destroyed on buildings torn down to make room for luxury condos
Twenty-one aerosol artists sued the owner of a Long Island City, Queens, site known as 5Pointz
The graffiti was painted over in 2013 and the buildings were torn down a year later. The ruling followed a three-week trial in November
Before they vanished, the graffiti artworks became a tourist attraction, drawing thousands of spectators daily and forming a backdrop to the 2013 movie, ‘Now You See Me,’ and a site for an Usher tour, the judge noted.
All the while, the crime-ridden neighborhood gradually improved and it became the ‘world’s largest collection of quality outdoor aerosol art,’ though a system set up by the artists meant some paintings were temporary while others were given permanent status, Block wrote.
The ruling followed a three-week trial in November, when Block said the ‘respectful, articulate and credible’ artists testified about ‘striking technical and artistic mastery and vision worthy of display in prominent museums if not on the walls of 5Pointz.’
He noted one artist came from London, another from rural West Virginia, while others were products of prestigious art schools. Some were self-taught.
The site owners hired workers to paint over a majority of the graffiti art in the neighborhood
The historic graffiti mecca 5 Pointz is seen after being painted over by developers in the dead of night
The 5 Pointz Building is a landmark in the New York graffiti scene that has attracted artists from around the globe
He said he was impressed with the breadth of the artists’ works and how many works ‘spoke to the social issues of our times.’
Jerry Wolkoff, who owned the buildings, had conceded he allowed the spray-paint artists to use the buildings as a canvas for decades but said they always knew they would be torn down someday.
His lawyer, David Ebert, did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
The artists had once hoped to buy the properties, before their value soared to over $200 million.
Block noted Monday there was no remorse from the owner of the warehouse buildings
A mural of The Notorious B.I.G at 5 Pointz dated June 30, 2011 in Long Island City, Queens
Block said he hoped the award would give teeth to a federal law that should have kept Wolkoff from demolishing them for at least 10 months, when he had all his permits.
Artists then could have easily rescued some paintings from siding, plywood or sheet-rock before the rollers, spray machines and buckets of white paint arrived.
‘Wolkoff has been singularly unrepentant. He was given multiple opportunities to admit the whitewashing was a mistake, show remorse, or suggest he would do things differently if he had another chance,’ Block said.
‘Wolkoff could care less. As he callously testified,’ the judge 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.
‘The mutilated works were visible by millions of people on the passing 7 train.’
The judge said he would not have assessed so much in damages if the owner had awaited his permits and demolished the art 10 months later than he did