A New York Federal court judge awarded $6.75 million in damages to 21 graffiti artists in a unique case that saw past and present-day New York City collide at speed.
Developer Jerry Wolkoff purchased the Crane Street Studios/5Pointz complex in Long Island City in the 1970s, reports CBS New York. The buildings — on Jackson Avenue, adjacent to the 7 Line subway — had originally been intended for manufacturing, claiming a water meter and phonograph needle factory as tenants at various times, among others.
As the buildings emptied out, it became a point of attraction for local, national and international artists, some of whom even worked out of the buildings. Beginning in the 1990s, Wolkoff and a group of street and graffiti artists had an arrangement that granted permission to artists to paint the exterior of the building.
The building was always in a state of semi-permanence, if not decay. An artist was injured in 2009 when a concrete stairwell collapsed in a “near-fatal” fall. That was the beginning of the end; the City promptly closed the largest building at the complex and issued a stack of violations to Wolkoff for various issues they assessed with the property.
In the fall of 2013, Wolkoff abruptly had the building whitewashed overnight, according to the New York Post. He claimed that the paint job was done ahead of demolition of the complex and construction of condominiums. Workers painted the building between 1:00 a.m. and 7:00 a.m., guarded by police, in an act that artists called “vandalism” the next day.
The curator of the building’s exterior, Jonathan Cohen, said at the time:
Tell Jerry I said I hope he’s happy. He destroyed the artwork and the biggest tourist attraction in Queens. I don’t care if he builds the tallest building in New York, nobody’s going to remember him for anything but that.
Artists who saw their work unceremoniously (and ironically) destroyed in the dead of night took salt in the wound when the condominium’s design and branding proposals were released, revealing that the new condos were to be “street art-themed” and featured imitation graffiti styling in marketing materials.
Nearly two dozen artists banded together to file suit after the whitewashing, claiming that Wolkoff violated an obscure provision in copyright law called the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), according to the New York Times. After a three-week trial, a judge agreed, calling Wolkoff’s decision to whitewash the building with no warning — and well before the scheduled demolition — an act of “pure pique and revenge.”