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5 Pointz artists’ lawsuit over demolished work may proceed, judge rules

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A jury will hear the case, a Brooklyn judge ruled

It’s been more than three years since 5 Pointz, once known as the “U.N. of graffiti” met its untimely end, but according to the New York Observer, the fight over the Long Island City space isn’t over just yet.

While the warehouse itself has been razed—and the “aerosol art” has long been whitewashed out of existence—the graffiti artists whose work was unceremoniously lost may yet be entitled to compensation, a Brooklyn judge ruled last week.

Back in 2011, Jerry Wolkoff, the owner of the property, began taking steps to replace Long Island City’s unofficial graffiti museum with a pair of high-rise residential towers. In 2013, the graffiti artists sued to protect their work, but—after an initial delay—a judge eventually denied their request, Artsy recalls.

Wolkoff’s company, G&M Realty, then proceeded to whitewash the building literally overnight, and months before the property was slated for demolition, ostensibly in order to prevent the property from being able to claim landmark status.

Then, in 2015, nine of the artists sued Wolkoff, this time for the stealth whitewashing of the murals. According to the claim, Wolkoff and G&M realty had removed the murals “without giving [the artists] a fair opportunity to remove and preserve their work, or even the minimum notice required by law,” Hyperallergic reported at the time. The suit argued that the works were protected under the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA), which, Artsy explains, “grants visual artists limited rights over work they created but do not own.” They are seeking unspecified damages, plus reimbursement for legal fees.

But protections under VARA are relatively limited: it’s applicable only to visual art, the rights last only for the life of the artist, and—the issue here—it only applies to works of “recognized stature.”

The developers say 5 Pointz doesn’t fit the bill, asserting that although the artists themselves are well-known, the works in question are not.

Luckily for the artists, though, Judge Frederic Block isn’t buying it, ruling that the evidence was enough to send the artists’ VARA claims to a jury. And, as Artsy points out, a Brooklyn jury is “likely to be sympathetic to the artists amid the constant churn of gentrifying landscapes.”

Less promising: the fact that the court will be considering each individual work separately; the judge has asked all nine artists to “present a ‘final list’ of all the works, so he may determine whether the claims will be managed by a single jury or multiple juries,” Artsy says.

Meanwhile, work on the towers continues apace. When last checked in on the project in October, a pair of “massive, but rather plain-looking towers” were slowly rising above ground.