As you've probably heard, 5 Pointz is no more. Painted over. Whitewashed. Dead. "Maybe this isn't such a bad thing." We headed to Long Island City by earlier this morning to see how the erasure was going and spoke with a couple artists affiliated with 5 Pointz.
James "Topaz" Rocco is a good friend of Meres One, who curates the space, organizes events, and arranges painting permits for visiting artists. Rocco has been volunteering here since 2002. He lives in Rego Park, “a couple train stops away,” so 5 Pointz “always been a place that we just came and painted and hung out and met people and networked. It’s a staple in the community for us.”
Much like the rest of the world, Topaz, along with artist and friend Spin and Dreddy Kruger, a local MC, found out about the new paint job this morning. “It was a rude awakening," Topas said. "From what I heard from one of the workers, they got here around 1 a.m. and started painting. We had left here a little before midnight last night, [with] a lot of photographers around” but no indication of what was to come. “We had no idea, but it’s very disappointing, to say the least…that the guy could not see the value in this.”
The Wolkoff family, which owns the property, clearly saw value in 5 Pointz, just value of a different kind. They allowed 5 Pointz to exist for a very long period of time, which they were never required to do. A guest editorial on this very site argued earlier today that the Wolkoff family “has been more than fair to Meres,” his crew, and 5 Pointz.
This is mostly bullshit. In order for us to swallow that rationale, we must accept that 5 Pointz just straight up couldn't have existed any longer, and it was a blessing that it existed in the first place, and that we should just be happy about what we got for how long we got it. That philosophy doesn’t sound satisfactory—it certainly doesn't sound very New York—and you would definitely find some disagreement from the people that spent any time or effort there.
After Judge Frederic Block, an admitted fan of the space, could not issue an injunction to stop the demolition, any hope for the future of 5 Pointz was lost. It was only a matter of time. Bring on the Condos, Also™, baby. “Obviously we didn’t want to go," Topaz said. "We put up somewhat of a fight. I don’t know how valid or justified our fight is but it was important to us. It was important to a lot of people. They had a rally out here Saturday with close to 2,000 people. Regular people from the community, with children and families.”
Trying to parse through what 5 Pointz actually was isn’t the easiest thing to do. An outdoor exhibition? Neutered haven for sanctioned “street” art? Community initiative? Benevolent gift from wealthy landowners? An eyesore sucking future profits from potential developers? Just a place like any other? Topaz:
As a community, it was more important than anything. I met people here from all over the world. It was a gathering spot. Not only that, Meres had class trips come here frequently, tour buses frequently, on top of the fact that we've actually mentored kids that were coming up interested in graffiti and geared them in the right directions to not to the wrong thing. Give them a place to go and try and teach them some techniques and let them know that you could make a legitimate career out of this rather than defacing other people's property and ending up in trouble. And ending up in the wrong crowds where you're gonna be doing drugs and drinking and risk going to jail.
We gave them a safe haven where that was not occurring. Years and years ago, like I was telling the other guys, you'd see prostitutes and crack dealers walking up and down this block. Meres put in the effort to eliminate that. And it wasn't an easy fight.
The reduction in crime, skyrocketing property values, and the general shift in the socio-economic and political climates of New York over the past 30 years is discussed widely these days. A neighborhood's desirability can obviously be attributed to many factors. How much 5 Pointz actually initiated change versus how much change was wrought by city policies is hard to quantify. The point here is that 5 Pointz had tremendous symbolic value for the community and artists involved with it, and that value radiated outward. Perception is everything, so that if the community identifies itself with a beautified and reclaimed urban space like 5 Pointz, one could argue that it's more responsible for a positive shift in the community than other factors.
Dreddy Kruger, a Queens MC and loose Wu-Tang Clang affiliate, offered some thoughts on 5 Pointz and hip-hop, of which graffiti was originally an integral part of the early heterogeneous and diverse movement. “It’s all a collective,” Kruger said, “this is hip-hop. It’s not just graffiti; it’s not just art that got painted over. There are memories here without art. I’ve performed here over the summer. We done packed it out for Kool Herc, 40 Years of Hip-Hop. We had damn here 2,000 people on this loading dock. Not a fight. Not a fight.”
Kruger followed with a short list of some of the most influential figures in the history of hip-hop: "This summer alone look who came out: we had Craig G, we had Shabaam Sahdeeq, The Rockness Mostah, Buckshot, Smif-n-Wessun, part of Heltah Skeltah, we had Ol' Dirty Bastard's son, we had Marly Marl, Tony Touch, Afrika Bambaataa. Everybody's been out here."
MoMa PS1 sits across the street from 5 Pointz, drawing crowds that undoubtedly popped over to 5 Pointz before or after their visit. Kruger told us that "We've gotten MoMa crowds here that were like 'Why the hell did I even go over there?' You pay a certain amount of money to get in there meanwhile you've got Marley Marl across the street."
This isn't just street art. Street art is never just street art. Being a historian of street art brings with it the same negative connotations as being a historian of other art forms: regulatory gate-keeping, knowledge politics. Requiring an art form, illegal at one period in history, to remain illegal to “preserve authenticity” might be an even worse death. No progress allowed. Stay where you are. Authenticity is becoming a curse.
It is important to be wary of the ways in which radical art forms and political movements can be co-opted by the mainstream culture they oppose. This is the most compelling argument against legal street art. But, at the risk of being reductive, it comes down to two questions for me: Was New York a better place with 5 Pointz in it? And did it really have to go?
There’s a sad, defeated truth at the center of all of this, one that feels perhaps all too familiar to New Yorkers: “It was one of those things that, I guess, it was bound to happen eventually, but you’d never thought it was gonna happen," Topaz told us. "Feels like someone died just now.” We knew this was coming, there was nothing we could do about it, and now here we sit."
Maybe 5 Pointz being gone truly isn’t such a bad thing, but whom does that argument service? The sacred and ideal outlaw Graffiti form? Not really. It's nothing but an apology for forces bent on eviscerating the cultural life of New York City. As a friend who was explaining the biggest problem with The Dark Knight Rises to me once put it: “The film asks you to root for an army of cops.” Today feels like we're being asked to root for—or at least roll over and accept—an army of market forces and condominiums.
The warehouse is scheduled to be demolished. The substances which make up that building (brick, mortar, etc.) that will no longer be there are going to be destroyed as well. Now, most of the exterior is covered in white paint. That's a lot of paint and a lot of man hours. In the perfect, lasting gesture, the building didn't need to be painted over. Many of the burners are lightly coated and almost one fourth of the building is still untouched. Some of the pieces have just a single, nearly transparent coat of white paint over them, the work beneath still clearly visible.
Kruger grabs me and turns me around. "The way this got painted over...you can look at it. Does it look like vandalism to you? We're talking about a multi-millionaire. They didn't even finish."