A landmark 2018 ruling by Brooklyn Federal Court Judge Frederic Block that granted 21 graffiti artists a total of $6.75 million in compensation for art unceremoniously destroyed by a developer seven years ago was upheld by a U.S. Appeals Court in Queens on Thursday.
Gerald Wolkoff, a Queens developer who whitewashed the artists’ work at renowned 5Pointz graffiti mecca without warning, now owes the artists $150,000 for each of the 45 works of art destroyed. In the 2013 lawsuit brought against Wolkoff, the artists argued their work was of “recognized stature,” and therefore, protected by the federal Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990.
The Visual Artists Right Act grants artists specific “moral rights” for their work, prohibits the modification of works in ways that might be considered harmful to artists’ reputations and grants protection to art regarded to be of “recognized stature.”
“Although a work’s short lifespan means that there will be fewer opportunities for the work to be viewed and evaluated, the temporary nature of the art is not a bar to recognized stature,” Judge Barrington Parker wrote in his 32-page decision that affirmed Judge Frederic Block’s 2018 decision to penalize Wolkoff.
In 2002 Wolkoff had recruited graffiti artist Jonathan Cohen, also known as Meres One, to turn the old Long Island factory into an exhibition space. Then, 11 years later, Wolkoff hatched plans to demolish the building in order to make way for luxury apartments. Wolkoff proceeded to whitewash art on the site in November 2013, several months before he even received demolition permits.
Although Wolkoff challenged most points of the decision, the court was unswayed, explaining its affirmation of the decision by citing the cultural importance of other street artists like Banksy:
“For example, noted street artist Banksy has appeared alongside President Barack Obama and Apple founder Steve Jobs on Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people,” the decision states.
“The Second Circuit’s landmark decision is a monumental win for the rights of all artists in this country,” Eric Baum, the attorney who represented the plaintiffs, told Artnet News.
“The finding is a clear indication these artists’ work is important and should be respected,” Baum added.