NEW YORK — Ruling that graffiti — a typically transient form of art — was of sufficient stature to be protected by the law, a U.S. judge in Brooklyn awarded a judgment of $6.7 million Monday to 21 graffiti artists whose works were destroyed in 2013 at the 5Pointz complex in Long Island City, Queens.
In November, a landmark trial came to a close in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn when a civil jury decided that Jerry Wolkoff, a real estate developer who owned 5Pointz, broke the law when he whitewashed dozens of swirling murals at the complex, obliterating what a lawyer for the artists had called “the world’s largest open-air aerosol museum.”
Though Wolkoff’s lawyers had argued that the buildings were his to treat as he pleased, the jury found he violated the Visual Artists Rights Act, or VARA, which has been used to protect public art of “recognized stature” created on someone’s else property.
In an odd legal twist, the judge at that trial, Frederic Block, altered the verdict at the eleventh hour to make it merely a recommendation. But Monday, Block upheld the jury’s decision, and his ruling awarded the artists the maximum damages possible, saying that 45 of the dozens of ruined murals had enough artistic stature to merit being protected. The jury had found that only 36 of the works should be guarded under VARA.
From the start, the 5Pointz case had pitted two of New York City’s most prominent sectors against each other: the art world and the real estate business. Block’s ruling — and the size of the judgment he awarded — was a decisive victory for the former, said Dean Nicyper, a partner who specializes in art law at the firm Withers Bergman.
“There have been other instances where graffiti artists have been recognized as deserving protection,” Nicyper said, adding that courts have ruled that clothing designers who cribbed ideas from graffiti artists were liable for intellectual theft. But the 5Pointz case, he said, was the first time that graffiti and graffiti artists were protected under VARA.
David Ebert, a lawyer for Wolkoff, did not return a call seeking comment.
Eric Baum, a lawyer for the artists, hailed the judgment, calling it “a victory not only for the artists in this case, but for artists all around the country.”
“The clear message is that art protected by federal law must be cherished and not destroyed,” Baum said. “With this win, the spirit of 5Pointz becomes a legacy for generations of artists to come.”