Belated Victory for Artists at 5Pointz

Three years ago I biked across the Queensboro Bridge to admire and photograph the spraypainted graffiti murals at the fabled location in Long Island City known as 5Pointz.  Painted on the walls of a 200,000 square foot factory building, 5Pointz had a reputation as the epicenter of the graffiti scene, and featured works by artist from across the globe.  Less than a week after I visited, the building was whitewashed in the dead of night by the owner and developer, with the intention of demolishing the building and replace it with high-end condos.

5Pointz was in existence for nearly 20 years, and served as an offbeat tourist destination.  Its existence served to catalyze gentrification of the neighborhood.  I crossed the bridge just after a federal judge denied a request for an injunction to block demolition, and wanted to see it before the site disappeared.

Before its destruction, the curator and graffiti artist Jonathan Cohen tried to turn the site into a graffiti art museum, seeding tax-exempt status and calling the project 5Pointz Aerosol Art Center.  But despite organization of the artists, a petition and lawsuit, the landlord moved ahead with its destruction.

The artists claimed in their suit in Federal District Court in Brooklyn that the landlord violated the Visual Artists Rights Act, which has been used to protect public art created on someone else’s property.  Plaintiffs claimed that the owner failed to give the artists a proper 90 day notice before destroying the work.

The landlord’s attorney argued that VARA was not applicable because it was designed to protect art not the building, and that the artists knew that the building would eventually come down.  They also argued that the artists destroyed their own work by painting over it again and again over the years. After three week of testimony the jury rendered the decision that the developer broke the law when he covered the murals and tore down the building.

The attorneys agreed however that the verdict will serve only as a recommendation to the judge, who will issue a final decision to force the developer to pay the artists damages.

This place was truly an amazing showcase of urban art and creativity, bursting with streetstyle imagery.  Dozens of people walked around gazing in wonder at the colorful walls, snapping selfies and admiring the artistry.

Much of the art was dark and haunting, I felt transported back to the New York City I knew when I first moved here in 1984 when Koch was mayor and the streets were much meaner.  Crack and AIDS were front page news and every subway car was covered with similar spray painted graffiti.  Glass walled towers were something you saw in pictures of cities out west and maybe in Asia. It was sad to see another piece of New York City’s cultural heritage disappear, but the legacy of 5Pointz is a demonstration of the power of art and how it can move people.

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Dr. Jeffrey M. Levine has authored numerous articles on topics related to healthcare of the elderly. These include medical history, prevention and treatment of chronic wounds such as pressure ulcers, elder neglect and abuse, and physical restraints. He has also edited a book on legal and regulatory aspects of nursing homes.