Jury Finds Developer Illegally Destroyed Graffiti Artists’ Work in New York

On Tuesday, November 7, a Brooklyn jury found that a New York real estate developer broke the law when he whitewashed the graffiti art on the exterior of the 5Pointz complex in Queens in November 2013. If the presiding judge, Frederick Block, agrees with the jury’s verdict, the ruling could set a precedent for providing legal protections to street artists.

“The advisory verdict from the jury—after four years of stress and pain—is a big step for visual artist rights in this country and all over the world,” Marie Flageul, one of the artists who tried to save the 5Pointz graffiti, said in an interview with Hyperallergic. “The message sent by the jury is that the whitewash of our artwork was a cruel and spiteful act.”

While 5Pointz owner Jerry Wolkoff had allowed artists to paint on the Long Island City buildings for more than twenty years, transforming the complex into a tourist destination, he claims he had been clear about his plans to eventually tear the buildings down.

Eric Baum, the lawyer representing the twenty-one artists who filed a lawsuit against Wolkoff, argued that Wolkoff violated the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) when he destroyed the works, and that he was required to give them ninety-days notice before he painted over the murals.

In response, Wolkoff’s lawyer, David Ebert, declared that VARA is unrelated to the case because it protects artworks, not property. However, if the judge agrees with the jury’s determination, Wolkoff may be ordered to pay the artists damages.