The Making of the Moral Rights Case: The Factual and Legal Background of the 5Pointz Trial
5 Pointz artists awarded damages for whitewashed graffiti at L.I.C. art mecca
Link to updated story: http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/5-pointz-artists-awarded-damages-whitewashed-graffiti-article-1.3617903
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By Laura B. Richardson*
5Pointz, the world renowned “graffiti mecca” as it was once known, has become the subject of a legal battle which has culminated in a jury trial in the Eastern District of New York. Cohen v. G&M Realty L.P., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 50943 is a case brought by twenty-one graffiti artist plaintiffs against the defendant property owners of the 5Pointz buildings, for the destruction of 49 aerosol artworks (numbers of plaintiff-artists and works have been changing between 2013 and 2017). The artists are suing for infringement of their rights under the Visual Artists Rights Act 1990 (“VARA”), 17 U.S.C. § 106A, which protects rights of living artists whose visual art works are of recognized stature.
Street Artists Go to Court
On October 10, 2013, artists, represented by Jeannine Leigh Widmer Chanes, sought a federal court order to preliminarily enjoin the destruction of the buildings, invoking their Visual Artists Rights Act 1990 (VARA) rights. On October 17, 2013, the Eastern District Court issued a temporary restraining order against the property owner, enjoining Wolkoff from altering the building in any way whilst the Court considered the plaintiffs’ motion. On November 12, 2013 the Court lifted the restraining order and denied the plaintiffs’ request for preliminary injunctive relief. Judge Block indicated that a written opinion would follow, and on November 20, his opinion explained that going to the issues of both irreparable harm and the balancing of the hardships, “the transient nature of the plaintiffs’ works” was the “ineluctable factor which preclude[d] either preliminary or permanent injunctive relief.”
Between November 12 and November 20, Wolkoff apparently denied artists access to 5Pointz and on November 19, he ordered 5Pointz whitewashed overnight, without any notification to the artists. In his deposition on Friday, November 3, 2017 Wolkoff admitted that he hired and paid in cash a crew of painters, who began covering 5Pointz with white (and blue and black) paint at 4 a.m.. Some of the murals were covered in their entirety, while others were partially obscured by whitewash, with ghosts of the mutilated art peeping from under the quick job of reclaiming 5Pointz by its legal owner. The compound structures were not actually demolished until months later in August 2014.
The artists subsequently sued, seeking damages for the destruction of visual works of art at 5Pointz, in violation of their rights under the Visual Artists Rights Act 1990.
In the defense’s opening statement on October 17th of the inaugural jury truly to hear a VARA case, Wolkoff’s attorneys characterized the whitewashing as a humanitarian act, “ripping off the Band-Aid” and covering the works so as to save the artists from the distress of seeing their art sit on the walls waiting for demolition for several months.
|Art expert Renee Vera testifying to the value of the street artists work that was destroyed on 5Pointz. Esteban de Valle's artwork highlighted on screen.|
1971– Jerry Wolkoff purchases property at 45–46 Davis Street Long Island City, Queens, New York.
1993 – The site is established as the “Phun Phactory” and Wolkoff grants artists permission to paint on building.
2002 – Jonathan Cohen becomes curator of 5Pointz.
2002-2013 – 5Pointz becomes internationally recognized “open air aerosol art museum” and “mecca of graffiti art” as top street artists flock to New York to paint at 5Pointz and tourists visit from all over the world to experience the murals at 5Pointz.
2010 – Real estate boom and sharp increase in property value in the Long Island City area.
August 21, 2013 – New York City Landmark Preservation Commission denies granting 5Pointz landmark status.
August 21, 2013 – The City Planning Commission issues building permit authorizing the destruction of the 5Pointz buildings and the building of two-high rise towers containing 800 luxury rentals and more than 200 affordable units.
October 10, 2013 – Plaintiffs file complaint and motion for preliminary injunction to prevent the destruction of the premises, invoking their VARA rights.
October 17, 2013 – Court issues a temporary restraining order against the property owner.
November 12, 2013 – Court issues an order denying plaintiffs’ request for preliminary injunctive relief to prevent the destruction of their paintings.
November 19, 2013 – Whitewashing of building occurs overnight.
June 17, 2014 – Plaintiffs file the Cohen Complaint. In it, four claims are pled: (1) VARA, (2) intentional infliction of emotional distress (“IIED”), (3) conversion, and (4) property damage.
August 2014– Demolition of whitewashed 5Pointz buildings.
June 3, 2015 – Maria Castillo and other artists (“Castillo Plaintiffs”) initiate a separate lawsuit against the defendants (“Castillo Matter”). As in Cohen, the Castillo Plaintiffs adduce the same four claims in their pleadings.
October 17, 2017 – Trial begins in Federal court, J. Block presiding.
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*About the Author: Laura B. Richardson is serving as the Fall 2017 Postgraduate Legal Fellow with the Center for Art Law. She obtained her LLB from King’s College London in 2016 and is currently an LLM candidate at NYU School of Law with a specialization in Competition, Innovation and Information Law. She can be reached at email@example.com