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Trial over 5Pointz graffiti whitewashing begins

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Artists whose work was destroyed by the whitewashing of 5Pointz meet in court with developer Jerry Wolkoff

A whitewashed 5Pointz, before its 2014 demolition.
Max Touhey

Tuesday marked the beginning of a trial that’s been brewing since at least November 2013, when developers Jerry and David Wolkoff swiftly and without warning whitewashed the walls of 5Pointz, Long Island City’s beloved and erstwhile graffiti institution.

Wolkoff has owned the property bound by the rail yard and Jackson Avenue, and Crane and Davis streets since at least the 1990s, when he entered into an informal agreement with graffiti artists, allowing them to tag the building at the site. Over the 20 years that Wolkoff left the building dormant, it became a tourist destination as well as a hub of some of the city’s most important works of graffiti. But then Long Island City lost much of its edge, and Wolkoff decided to move forward with developing two large rental towers at the site.

Some artists who contributed work to 5Pointz maintain that the overnight whitewashing and the building’s subsequent demolition in 2014 set up a path to recourse as the artists were unable to salvage their works, many of which could have gone to museums, the lawsuit first filed in 2015 says.

Whether or not some of those works that were destroyed qualified under the Visual Artists Rights Acts, which can be used to protect public works of art of a “recognized stature,” is now being sussed out in the courts. More than 20 graffiti artists are suing Wolkoff for monetary compensation, alleging that the developer didn’t provide the proper 90-day notice that would have allowed the artists to salvage their work.

The New York Times points out that the trial will most likely revolve around one simple question: who’s work is more valuable, the artists’ or the developer’s? It begs pointing out that while Wolkoff generously availed the space all those years, he’s also poised to profit off of its artistic legacy. The interior design of the two rental towers Wolkoff is building on the site capitalizes on 5Pointz’s legacy by incorporating artwork into its common spaces, as well as the 5Pointz logo above the reception desk.