Judge Grants Artists Restraining Order to Block Destruction of NY 'Graffiti Mecca'

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

Oct. 29, 2013 — -- The graffiti artists who sued the owner of a building to protect their artwork have won an extension of a temporary restraining order by a federal judge that prevents demolition activities until next month.

Long before British graffiti artist Banksy made headlines in New York City, local street artists converged on a "graffiti mecca" in Queens to showcase their creations.

But that collection, known as 5Pointz, is slated to be razed to make way for luxury apartments.

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

On Monday, a judge extended a temporary restraining order over the landowner after a group of 16 artists sued to preserve their street art. The judge ordered Wolkoff to cease all demolition-related activities and the plaintiffs to cease all painting through Nov. 12.

Wolkoff and G&M Realty have not responded to an ABC News request for comment.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs claim that 5Pointz is unique in that it houses what is believed to be the largest collection of aerosol-street art in the world.

Federal district judge Frederic Block scheduled a hearing for Nov. 6, when the judge will address a request for a preliminary injunction and the artists' allegations that Wolkoff violated an existing restraining order this weekend.

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The city block in the Queens neighborhood of Long Island City has grown into a popular tourist destination in New York in the past 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.

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 Oct. 10 with the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn.

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Roland Acevedo, a pro-bono attorney for Cohen and the artists, said 5Pointz is "tantamount to the Louvre for 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 the artists say they can raise the money to purchase the property.

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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.

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 5ptz.com. The group showcases the works of visual art at 5Pointz and "publicizes the free community events sponsored by 5Pointz," the lawsuit states.