When the incoming residents of 22-44 Jackson Avenue move into their stony towers of brand new beige blah, they'll be building their FJELLSE beds on a graffiti burial ground. The new residential towers, made up of 1,000 market-rate apartments and 200 affordable housing units, are set to open in 2018. A federal lawsuit against property owner Jerry Wolkoff won't change that, but the artists behind the suit hope it will set a precedent for protecting street art.
The lawsuit stems from Wolkoff's 2013 whitewashing and destruction of 5Pointz, the sprawling warehouse graffiti hub that once stood on the Jackson Avenue property in Long Island City. Despite a ten year relationship between Wolkoff and the artists that used 5Pointz, Wolkoff allegedly provided no formal legal notice that he had sold the property and made it impossible for any of the building's graffiti, paste-up, and stencil pieces to be saved (although a few taggers did sneak in and give it a little fresh paint after the closing).
In a federal lawsuit filed quickly after the destruction of 5Pointz, Wolkoff is criticized for not providing legal notice of the upcoming demolition and the opportunity for artists to remove, or at least photograph, their works. Eric Baum, an attorney representing the 23 artists suing Wolkoff, told the Times that he plans to demonstrate to a jury that the works were "not vandalism, but rather work done with permission of the owner, by artists of recognized stature, and protected by law."
Amongst the artists suing Wolkoff is Jonathan Cohen, aka Meres1, one of the former curators of 5Pointz. Cohen has been extremely critical of the former 5Pointz owner since the destruction took place.
The lawsuit is being filed under the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, which has in the past allowed for the protection of public art of "recognized stature," even if it's on someone else's property (a great explainer of the VARA and its bearing in the 5Pointz case has been published at Artsy).
Wolkoff argued that the very nature of street art's creative destruction justified the surprise demolition, telling the Times, "They painted over their own work continually, and it goes on for years. That's the idea of graffiti. There were tens of thousands of paintings there, over the years, and they'd last for three or six or nine months."
He also claims the artists "knew for 10 years" that the building would be coming down.