A group of New York graffiti artists was awarded millions of dollars in damages after their work was disturbed due to the plans of a building developer. The amount of damages is exceeding $6 million and the circumstances also reflect a hard-earned and highly-publicized victory. The origin of the dispute traces back to the Queens Borough of New York City in 2013. A group of talented artists was concentrating their work in a warehouse complex in a part of Queens which is known as 5Pointz. They were renting the building and also working on it to transform the neglected buildings into work of art with their graffiti.
The legal battle started when the owner of the building, Gerald Wolkoff, decided to whitewash the buildings. He simply used the logic that just like the graffiti artists have painted over his buildings, he has also done the same to cover their artwork. Wolkoff was hoping to score a victory over the artists on the court. He said that he also had plans to build an 18-meter high wall close to the buildings which can be used by the artists to make graffitis. Marie Cecile Flaguel, a spokesman for 5Pointz, gave his views on Wolkoff’s decision in 2013, saying, “He’s painted over the work of at least 1,500 artists.”
This case also became another textbook case of the classic battle between artists and real estate developer. However, in this case, very few were expecting the outcome that came. The Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) led to a victory which was favoring artists for the first time. According to the law which was developed in 1990, it “grants artists the rights to prevent intentional modification to their art and the destruction of a work of recognized stature.” The law also states that the artists were to be given notice prior moving or altering their work. Wolkoff painted over the images before he received any decision from the court.
The decision of the jury came in November 2017 which was in the favor of the artists. However, the most upsetting news came to Wolkoff this week where he has been ordered to pay a total of $6.7 million to 21 artists. Judge Frederic Block issued the decision saying, “Rather than wait for the court’s opinion, Wolkoff destroyed almost all of the plaintiff’s paintings by whitewashing them during that eight-day interim. The sloppy, half-hearted nature of the whitewashing left the works easily visible under thin layers of cheap, white paint, reminding the plaintiffs on a daily basis what had happened.” There are different opinions about the decision since the damage was already done to the paintings, however, this case will set new the legal laws related to the graffiti artists.