In one of the strongest statements about artists’ rights, and the idea of public space, a group of New York City graffiti artists who had their work disturbed due to the plans of a building developer, were awarded millions of dollars in damages. And, may we add, this was clearly no quiet settlement. The total amount of the damages—exceeding $6 million—as well as the circumstances involved, seem to reflect a hard-earned, and highly-publicized victory.
The origins of the dispute can be traced back to the Queens Borough of New York City in 2013. At the time, a talented artist collective were concentrating their work in a warehouse complex in a part of Queens known as 5Pointz, both renting the space in the building and working over the years to transform neglected urban buildings into works of art with their graffiti.
The legal battle began after the owner of the complex, Gerald Wolkoff, with no warning or statement of intention, made the decision to whitewash the façade of the massive buildings, covering the time- and labor-intensive creations.
Most likely using the logic that just as the graffiti artists had painted over his buildings, he had simply done the same in covering their art, Wolkoff hoped to score a victory over the group in court. He added at the time that he had plans to erect an 18-meter high wall close to the planned high-rise towers that could be used in the future by graffiti artists.
Marie Cecile Flaguel, a spokeswoman for the 5Pointz collective, estimating the impact of Wolkoff’s decision in 2013, said, “He’s painted over the work of at least 1,500 artists.”
Reflecting a very real, and omnipresent, issue in New York, it became another textbook case of the classic battle between artist and real estate developer. But, in this case, few if any could have expected the surprising outcome, which represents the first time in which the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) led to a legal victory that favored artists.
The much-invoked law, which went into effect in 1990, “grants artists the rights to prevent intentional modification to their art and the destruction of a work of recognized stature.” The law also stipulates that artists have to be given notice before their work is moved or altered—Wolkoff painted over the images before receiving any court decision.
The jury decision came in November 2017, siding with the artists, but it wasn’t until this week that Wolkoff faced the most upsetting news: he has been ordered to pay 21 artists a combined total of $6.7 million. Judge Frederic Block, who issued the decision, delivered very strong words:
“Rather than wait for the court’s opinion, Wolkoff destroyed almost all of the plaintiff’s paintings by whitewashing them during that eight-day interim,” he said, adding, “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.”
Though opinions are divided about the impact of the ruling, given that the damage had already been done, the landmark case will no doubt set new legal precedents related to graffiti artists.