BY TRISHA SAKHUJA
The whitewashed walls of the “Graffiti Mecca” at 5Pointz in Long Island City could ultimately result in a hefty bill to the owners of the warehouse for monetary damages.
Brooklyn Federal Judge Frederic Block issued a 27-page ruling on Nov. 20, which states, while “the Court wishes it had the power to preserve” the art, he can not grant a permanent injunction to stop the demolition.
G&M Realty’s Jerry Wolkoff said he decided to paint over the aerosol art by local and international street artists during the early hours on Nov. 19, so the artists and owners would not have to be “tortured” while watching the demolition of the building.
The internationally-known warehouse in Long Island City is set for redevelopment early next year. The developer’s plan to build a pair of luxury apartment condos that include 1,000 apartments with 200 affordable housing units and designated art space was approved by the City Council in October.
In his ruling, Block stated a civil jury could go in favor of the group of street artists, including Jonathan Cohen, the curator of 5Pointz, who filed a lawsuit to protect the ever-changing artwork that adorns the walls of the warehouse and the cultural heritage it represents.
According to the ruling, because the Visual Artists Rights Act protects even temporary works of art from destruction, the street artists are “exposed to potentially significant monetary damages if it is ultimately determined after trial that the plaintiffs’ [street artists] works were of ‘recognized stature.’”
Jeannine Chanes, one of the two attorneys representing the group of artists, said the Wolkoffs did not ask the artists how they would feel about whitewashing the artwork before the demolition takes places, which could take up to three months.
“There is a rule of civil procedure that you are not supposed to destroy evidence while a case is pending,” Chanes said. “He violated that rule.”
Chanes said according to VARA, the intentional destruction of the artwork could result in statuary damages of up to $150,000 per piece, or up to a million dollars for some of the more valuable pieces.
Wolkoff said he has no animosity against the artists and it was always a known fact that he would tear down the building, even though the artists were given free reign to express themselves for more than a decade, without a VARA waiver.
“I would never think in my wildest imagination that they would sue me,” Wolkoff said. “All I did was help them.”
As for the possible monetary damages, Wolkoff said “That doesn’t bother me. I don’t see how they will get any monetary damages because they paint over their own work continually.”
Chanes said her clients seek a preliminary conference and trial schedule in the upcoming weeks.
Reach Trisha Sakhuja at (718) 357-7400, Ext. 128, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @Tsakhuja13.