Artists Sue to Prevent Destruction of 'Graffiti Mecca' in New York

Sixteen graffiti artists say they own the copyright to their visual art.

October 16, 2013, 9:46 AM
PHOTO: Developers trying to make way for luxury apartments in Long Island City face a legal challenge from artists who spray-painted the walls of the group of buildings known as 5Pointz.
Developers trying to make way for luxury apartments in Long Island City, New York, face a legal challenge from artists who spray-painted the walls of the group of buildings known as 5Pointz.
Allegra Acevedo

Oct. 16, 2013 — -- Long before British graffiti artist Banksy and his air of mystery arrived in New York City this month, local street artists converged on a graffiti mecca in Queens to showcase their creations.

But that mecca, known as 5Pointz, was slated to be razed to make way for luxury apartments. Lawyers are set to argue on Thursday in court after a group of 16 artists sued to preserve their street art.

A city block in the Queens neighborhood of Long Island City has grown into a popular tourist destination in New York over the last several years. It's even included in more than 100 international travel guides, with hundreds of tourists visiting in any given week, the lawsuit states.

Artist Jonathan Cohen, who tags under the name Meres One, said the property owner has allowed aerosol artists to decorate the interior and exterior of the building's walls since 1993, according to a lawsuit filed on Oct. 10 with the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn. Until a court decides on the matter, oral arguments for a temporary injunction are set to take place Thursday to stop the destruction of the 5-story building and surrounding area.

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The owner, Gerald Wolkoff and his firm G&M Realty, want to make way for a 1,000-unit luxury apartment complex, the lawsuit claims. But Cohen and other artists are asserting in court that they have copyright ownership over their works under the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) and copyright law.

Wolkoff and G&M Realty did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

"We want the judge to stop the destruction of 5Pointz, which is tantamount to the Louvre for artists," said Roland Acevedo, a pro-bono attorney for Cohen and the artists.

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Acevedo said the artists are proposing to buy the property, which is viewed by thousands of commuters along the 7 subway train, at fair market value. Acevedo said some estimates of the property are around $40 million, though the landlord has claimed it could be worth $200 million, according to Acevedo.

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"I certainly understand that this is the United States and this country was founded on the concept of property ownership," Acevedo said. "We understand that he has a piece of valuable property that belongs to him and his family. No one is going to deprive him of that."

The owner had only three rules for 5Pointz: no religious art, no profanity and no pornography, court papers noted.

Because the artists never signed a release with Wolkoff nor were paid for their work, they are claiming to retain all copyrights to their visual art.

"The landlord could have protected his property rights to have them sign releases under VARA, but he didn't," Acevedo said.

Acevedo said the artists say they can raise the money to purchase the property.

"The property is basically run down and needs a lot of work inside," Acevedo said. "It's not as if it's a valuable piece of property in and of itself. These artists are the ones who have maintained the property to fix stuff and make sure vandals don't get in. They're there all the time. They make sure things are locked. They give tours there. It's a phenomenal place."

Cohen, who could not be reached for comment, personally has more than 100 works of art on the exterior and interior walls of 5Pointz, some of which have copyright registration pending before the U.S. Copyright Office, the lawsuit claims.

Cohen said he has been a volunteer curator of the area since 2002, the lawsuit states, and the owner gave Cohen keys and "several secure spaces" to use as an office and to store cans of spray paint, ladders and other painting supplies. Cohen started a nonprofit corporation called 5Pointz Aerosol Arts Center Inc. with the website The group showcases the works of visual art at 5Pointz and "publicizes the free community events sponsored by 5Pointz," the lawsuit states.

Artists have traveled from Japan, Kazakhstan, Australia and Brazil for the opportunity to paint their works at 5Pointz, knowing that having their work at 5Pointz work "adds considerable prestige to an artist's reputation," the lawsuit states.

"You can't just come and paint on the walls," Acevedo said. "You have to go through Jonathan Cohen. He doesn't police it like a library. He's generous in giving permission."

But you have to show Cohen a sketch of your proposed work.

Acevedo said the artists had considered moving the artwork to another location, but he said it would be difficult to take apart a stone concrete wall and stairwells from a five-story building.

"This is not a canvas that can be easily moved," he said.

When asked if Cohen or any of the artists might demand financial compensation for their damaged visual work, Acevedo said it might be possible, given that VERA has statutory damages in the law that range from $750 to $150,000 per piece, if the damage is willful.

"We are asking the court to enjoin the landlord from destroying any more pieces of works," Acevedo said. "They've damaged a number of works already. We've asked court to stop destruction of work and building until the court can hear and decide this matter."