In February 2018, a New York judge awarded $6.7 million to graffiti artists who sued the owner of buildings they defaced because he tore down the buildings. That decision was appealed by the owner, but on Thursday, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that the judge was correct, ruling the owner had violated the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990.
In 2018, Federal Judge Frederic Block ruled against Long Island developer Jerry Wolkoff, who had permitted the “artwork” on his property, known as 5 Pointz, for decades, stating that Wolkoff was not sorry he had painted over the graffiti in 2013, torn down the buildings in 2014, and begun construction for two 40-story residential apartment buildings in 2015. Block said the penalty he assessed would not have been so exorbitant if Wolkoff had waited for the judge’s permission and demolished the art 10 months later than he did; that would have allowed artists to retrieve their paintings from the buildings.
Block was seemingly impressed with the aerosol artists; in November 2017, during the trial triggered by a lawsuit from the 21 aerosol artists, he gushed about how works produced by the artists “spoke to the social issues of our times.” He also stated that 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.”
Block slammed Wolkoff, saying, “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. … Wolkoff could care less. As he callously testified. 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.”
Block also asserted, “The shame of it all is that since 5 Pointz was a prominent tourist attraction, the public would undoubtedly have thronged to say its goodbyes during those 10 months and gaze at the formidable works of aerosol art for the last time. It would have been a wonderful tribute for the artists that they richly deserved.” As the New York Post reported, Block defended his decision by stating, “If not for Wolkoff’s insolence, these damages would not have been assessed. If he did not destroy 5 Pointz until he received his permits and demolished it 10 months later, the Court would not have found that he had acted willfully.”
The 2nd Circuit, agreeing with Block’s decision, wrote, “In recent years, ‘street art,’ much of which is ‘temporary,’ has emerged as a major category of contemporary art,” adding that the street artist Banksy has been named on Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people. They added, “A Banksy painting at 5Pointz would have possessed recognized stature, even if it were temporary.”
Marie Cecile Flageul, a curator who worked with the 21 artists sharing the $6.7 million payout, who had previously said that what Wolkoff did was “artistic murder,” stated of graffiti, “Now, it’s a validated art form which is collected, acquired and showcased in museums and galleries around the world.”