It took nearly four years, but the 5Pointz artists who turned a sprawling Long Island City warehouse into a world renowned graffiti mecca only to see their murals whitewashed under the cover of night have finally tasted justice.
A federal jury in Brooklyn decided unanimously in favor for the artists in their landmark case against real estate developer Jerry Wolkoff, finding that he broke the law when he ordered workers to paint over 49 of the murals before he demolished the complex a year later to make way for two luxury residential towers.
The decision by the jury in federal court said Wolkoff violated the federal Visual Artists Rights Act invoked by 21 of the 5Pointz artists in the court case. It was the first time the so-called VARA law was used in protection of graffiti artwork.
Enacted in 1990, VARA grants artists the rights to prevent intentional modification of the visual artworks and the destruction or mutilation of artworks of recognized stature.
“I don’t understand the ruling myself — I’m mystified,” Wolkoff said. “If you look at the VARA law, I’ve got to give them 90 days’ notice, but they knew for years that the building was coming down. Everyone knew it. But, hey, I know nothing about VARA. I’m a developer. If you can explain to me what I did wrong, I’d be interested to know. I whitewashed that building so they wouldn’t get arrested by protesting.”
The jury reached its decision after three weeks of testimony by the 21 artists, experts and Wolkoff, but its decision is strictly a recommendation to Judge Frederick Block, who presided over the case. Both parties will submit court papers and lock will make the final ruling and decide if Wolkoff must pay damages to the 21 5Pointz artists.
“It’s up to the judge,” Wolkoff said. “I never did anything wrong. I just gave them a place where they could express themselves for more than 20 years.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr