Art is in the eyes of the beholder. And last Thursday, Federal District Court Judge Frederic Block kind of agreed, and issued a 10-day temporary restraining order to the 16 graffiti artists who have filed a lawsuit in an attempt to save the art they painted on 5Pointz, the “Graffiti Mecca” of the art world, by stopping the demolition of the buildings located in Long Island City.
In a brilliant legal argument presented by Jeannine Chanes and Roland Acevedo, the two lawyers who are representing the artists, the plaintiffs argue that destroying the artwork is in violation of the Visual Artists Rights Act and copyright law.
The suit’s worthy goal is to preserve the community’s cultural heritage by preventing the owner of the buildings from destroying the 5Pointz artwork — and the buildings which house it — in order to build a luxury apartment complex that so many in Long Island City find objectionable.
The federal action is believed to be the first in the nation in which street artists have sought legal protection for their artwork. Unlike traditional artwork that is done on canvases that are hung in museums or galleries, street art is large-scale work often done on exterior or interior walls where it is immediately available for viewing by the general public. Working on that scale, however, means that the artwork cannot be removed or relocated.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs rightly claim that 5Pointz is unique in that it houses what is believed to be the largest collection of street-aerosol art in the world. The 5Pointz collection, which is made up of both permanent and rotating pieces, includes works done by some of the world’s most renowned street-aerosol artists. As a result, 5Pointz is an internationally known tourist attraction that brings millions of tourist dollars to New York City every year. The site also brings New York additional revenue as the location for movie, video and photo shoots.
The street art that appears on the walls at 5Pointz — which is seen daily by tens of thousands New York subway riders on the 7 train — is a far cry from the graffiti that New York City and other metropolitan areas worked to eradicate in the 1980s. The 5Pointz pieces are beautiful works of aerosol art that transcend differences in age, culture and background, and are particularly impressive when viewers realize that the intricate pieces are painted free-form using nothing more than cans of spray paint.
Under the terms of the 10-day TRO, the property owner, Jerry Wolkoff, is required to cease and desist all demolition-related activities that may harm the works of art at 5Pointz, and the plaintiffs must cease all painting on 5Pointz. When the TRO expires on Oct. 28, the court will issue an order regarding the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction. Based on Judge Block’s comments at oral argument last week, he will be scheduling a hearing to address questions of fact that must be resolved before a preliminary injunction can be granted or denied.
Many street artists have credited 5Pointz with turning their lives around, and moving them out of the streets, where they faced constant temptation to engage in illegal activities — including graffiti vandalism — and into productive lives as law-abiding citizens and professional artists.
Art turned my life around too. In 1985 I made the biggest mistake of my life when I passed an envelope to undercover officers containing four ounces of cocaine for the sum of $500. I was sentenced to 15 years to life under the Rockefeller Drug Laws of New York State.
I was lost until I discovered my talent as an artist. In 1988, three years into my sentence, I painted a self-portrait entitled “15 to Life.” Seven years later it appeared at the Whitney Museum of American Art. I got tremendous publicity, and two years later the governor of New York granted me executive clemency. I was freed after serving 12 years.
As an artist whose life was saved by art, I believe the power of art to be transformative, and the work on the walls of 5Pointz is testament to this. It is hoped that the 5Pointz art will not be destroyed like Diego Rivera’s epic mural “Man at the Crossroads” was in 1934 at Rockefeller Center. Artist Danny Simmons, who is co-founder and Chairman of Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation, said today that “5Pointz is a New York City treasure, much like Central Park and the Statue of Liberty, and it should be preserved for artists and tourists alike.”
Let’s hope the court agrees.
Anthony Papa is an artist who lives in Long Island City.