Judge awards 5Pointz graffiti artists $6.7M after works destroyed

LONG ISLAND CITY, Queens  — A New York judge has awarded $6.7 million to graffiti artists who sued after their work was destroyed on buildings torn down to make room for luxury condos.

Federal Judge Frederic Block in Brooklyn noted Monday there was no remorse from the owner of the warehouse buildings. Long Island Developer Jerry Wolkoff allowed the painting for decades on the property.

In November 2017 during a three-week trial, twenty-one aerosol artists sued the owner of a Long Island City, Queens site known as 5Pointz.

The case was based on the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990. That federal law allows artists "to prevent any destruction of a work of recognized stature, and any intentional or grossly negligent destruction of that work"

Their work was painted over in 2013 and the buildings were torn down a year later. Construction began on two 40-story residential apartment buildings in 2015.

The judge said he would not have assessed so much in damages if the owner had awaited his permits and demolished the art 10 months later than he did. Wolkoff ordered crews to whitewash the building one night. Wolkoff tells PIX11 News he plans to appeal the ruling.

Before they vanished, the graffiti artworks became a tourist attraction, drawing thousands of spectators daily and forming a backdrop to the 2013 movie, "Now You See Me," and a site for an Usher tour, the judge noted.

All the while, the crime-ridden neighborhood gradually improved and it became the "world's largest collection of quality outdoor aerosol art," though a system set up by the artists meant some paintings were temporary while others were given permanent status, Block wrote.

The ruling followed a trial in November, when Block said 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."

He noted one artist came from London, another from rural West Virginia, while others were products of prestigious art schools. Some were self-taught.

He said he was impressed with the breadth of the artists' works and how many works "spoke to the social issues of our times."

Jerry Wolkoff, who owned the buildings, had conceded he allowed the spray-paint artists to use the buildings as a canvas for decades but said they always knew they would be torn down someday. His lawyer, David Ebert, did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

The artists had once hoped to buy the properties, before their value soared to over $200 million.

Block said he hoped the award would give teeth to a federal law that should have kept Wolkoff from demolishing them for at least 10 months, when he had all his permits.

Artists then could have easily rescued some paintings from siding, plywood or sheet-rock before the rollers, spray machines and buckets of white paint arrived.

"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," Block said.

"Wolkoff could care less. As he callously testified," the judge said. "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."