Is graffiti protected by law? Earlier this November, a Brooklyn jury in the Eastern District of New York answered in the affirmative, and found that real estate developer Jerry Wolkoff violated the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA) when he demolished the well-known New York City “graffiti mecca,” 5Pointz.
The property in question, 5Pointz, is a warehouse in Long Island City (LIC), Queens that has been used as a canvas for numerous graffiti artists since 1980s. Wolkoff had allowed artists to paint over the building and officially granted permission in 1993. As a result of the booming real estate market in New York during the past decade, Queens and Brooklyn evolved into the new hot places for developers. 5Pointz was no exception, and Wolkoff subsequently decided to turn the old warehouse into new developments. In October 2013, Wolkoff had the wall of 5Pointz whitewashed overnight, which angered artists who had been using the space for creative works.
In response, a group of artists filed a claim in Eastern District under the VARA, alleging that demolition of the paintings at 5Pointz violated the artists’ “moral rights” to control the use of their works. The artists further argued that the paintings are so prominent that, even if Wolkoff was allowed to take them down, a timely notice should at least be given to the artists for them to salvage what was left. Wolkoff’s defense centered on the fact that artists knew that their works would be eventually destroyed and painted over because of the nature of the site.
The trial this November touched on a number of these arguments, specifically regarding whether the works at 5Pointz were of “recognized stature” to fall under the protection of VARA, and whether such works were “distorted, mutilated, or modified in a way that would be prejudicial to the author’s honor or reputation,” which would be a violation of VARA even if the works weren’t “recognized.” Although the verdict is advisory, the jury’s findings will inform the final ruling to be issued by U.S. District Judge Frederic Block in the coming weeks.
Alan Feuer, At Core of 5Pointz Trial: Is Graffiti Art Protected by Law?, N.Y. TIMES (Oct. 17, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/17/nyregion/at-core-of-5pointz-trial-is-graffiti-art-protected-by-law.html.
Bill Donahue, Destruction of ‘5Pointz’ Graffiti Violated Law, Jury Says, Law360 (Nov 8, 2017), https://www.law360.com/articles/983171
Ephrat Livni, A judge is Poised to Decide whether Graffiti can be Protected by Law, Quartz, https://qz.com/1107031/new-yorks-5pointz-graffiti-artists-are-suing-a-real-estate-developer-for-destroying-their-work/
Manteca Bulletin, Is Graffiti on Building Protected by Federal Law? (Oct. 22, 2017), http://www.mantecabulletin.com/section/142/article/147244/
Misanthropester, Book Review: Race to Judgment by Frederic Block (Sept. 24, 2017), https://misanthropester.com/2017/09/24/book-review-race-to-judgment-by-frederic-block/
Peter D’ Amato, 5Pointz Redevelopment Goes on Trial, Crain’s (Oct.18, 2017), http://www.crainsnewyork.com/article/20171018/REAL_ESTATE/171019874/5pointz-development-in-long-island-city-goes-on-trial-with-a-group-of-artists-claiming-damages-after-they-tried-to-save-the-building.
Zoe Rosenberg, Trial over 5Pointz Graffiti Whitewashing Begins, Curbed, https://ny.curbed.com/2017/10/18/16495482/5pointz-graffiti-long-island-city-trial.