It was a crushing blow to nearly two dozen established graffiti artists when in 2013 the owner of the Queens building complex known as 5Pointz ordered a surprise nighttime whitewashing of their colorful murals, leaving them with little chance to document or save the spray-painted artwork that had attracted worldwide attention.
But now they will have their chance at payback in a place that many graffiti artists try to avoid: a courtroom.
This is no vandalism case in a criminal courthouse, but rather a federal lawsuit filed in 2013 by the 23 artists who painted regularly at 5Pointz, against its owner, Jerry Wolkoff, who ordered the artwork destroyed.
The artists scored an incremental legal victory on March 31 when Judge Frederic Block of Federal District Court in Brooklyn ruled that their case could have a jury trial.
Ephemeral or not?
The judge’s ruling offers the artists a chance to confront Mr. Wolkoff in court and to seek redress for painting over their work, said Jonathan Cohen, an artist who had curated the murals and helped organize the artists at 5Pointz since 2002.
Mr. Cohen said he was hopeful that the suit might become a landmark case to establish street art as legitimate contributions worthy of protection.
Mr. Cohen, known by his artist name Meres1, said he had hoped to photograph the art on the building’s walls and to remove much of it, because many of the murals were painted on siding panels or otherwise removable and “could have filled a museum somewhere.”
In an interview, Mr. Wolkoff called the judge’s decision “mind boggling” because the art was never intended for anything but short-term display.
The 5Pointz artists followed a street graffiti tradition of creating murals knowing full well that they would soon be painted over by other artists, he added.
A legal angle:
In the suit, Mr. Baum contends that the art, created by recognized artists who had secured permission from the building owner, falls under the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, which has been used to protect established artists who have created public art that is of “recognized stature” on someone else’s property.
“We will make the jury aware,” he said, “that this was not graffiti, not vandalism, but rather work done with the permission of the owner, by artists of recognized stature, and protected by law.”