Street artists and activists are calling the recent paint job on 5Pointz “art genocide” after waking up on Tuesday to learn that the aerosol arts mecca was painted over.
The building, once covered with hundreds of pieces created by artists from around the world, is now nothing more than a storage space for food vendors, and 5Pointz founder Jonathan “Meres” Cohen is feeling the blow.
“Jerry and the whole Wolkoff family will go down in history as murderers of art,” Meres said. “That will be their legacy forever.”
Jerry Wolkoff, owner of the building, allowed Meres and other artists to paint on it for years. He now plans to knock the building down and construct two mixed-use apartment buildings with designated green space and artists’ galleries.
For months the 5Pointz group has been fighting to save the building from the wrecking ball and despite countless rallies and community board disapproval, the City Council approved Wolkoff’s proposal in September and the project is slated to begin in January.
Almost immediately after the council vote, Meres and 15 other artists filed a federal lawsuit against the Wolkoff family on the grounds that razing the building would violate an obscure law called the Visual Artists Rights Act.
A U.S. court judge recently lifted a restraining order on the building, allowing the Wolkoffs to do as they wish with it.
The lawsuit is still in court.
Never one to hold back, Meres alleged that the decision to whitewash the building was in reaction to a landmark application submitted by the 5Pointz organization this week. An additional 1,000 other applications were sitting in Meres’ apartment waiting to be filed.
Though malicious intent on the Wolkoffs’ end cannot be proven, there have been instances in the past where pending city landmarks were destroyed, voiding any chance to protect their exteriors.
“That restraining order gave us the peace of mind that this wouldn’t be touched,” Marie Flageul of 5Pointz said. “Now look at it. This is absolutely a response to the fact that we applied for landmark status.”
As word spread, scores of people came to Long Island City to pay their respects to the building.
“This was an exhibit,” Laura Green said. “It was one of the few bright spots in Long Island City and anyone who saw it has to admit that it was art and it was beautiful. The way they did this was shady, immature and disrespectful to the artists and to the community.”
The Wolkoffs could not be reached but they reportedly justified painting over the building by saying it would make it easier on the artists and supporters once it was brought down.
Later, at 5 p.m., hundreds gathered at the loading dock for a candlelight vigil and to say goodbye to the building for the last time.
Everyone was emotional. Some felt anger, others sadness, but most stood with mouths gaping in disbelief that the art was gone.
Poster boards were placed along the walls of 5Pointz so that supporters could leave their tag, signature or a message for all to see.
Many wrote words of hope and three artists created tribute pieces that hung above the crowd like the ghosts of 5Pointz past.
Heather Grady, a lifetime Astoria resident who visited 5Pointz frequently, shambled around the building, tracing her hand along the art that was just visible under a coat of white paint.
“I’m so angry,” she said. “I feel like a family member died because that’s what it is. It’s a death.”
Altogether the vigil, the tribute art, the laughter and candles made it easy to forget that anything had been taken away from the artists. But as soon as people looked around, expecting to see “5Pointz” scrawled in orange bubble letters, they saw a blank wall instead.
It was devastating for many attendees.
“I keep wanting to look up,” one man said. “I keep wanting to see the paintings and then I remember and it hurts my insides.”
Though hundreds showed up to mourn the loss of 5Pointz, as part of the project proposal, the Wolkoff family promised they would allot a few walls for street artists to continue working on.
“We want them to continue to work with us,” Jerry Wolkoff said during a City Council hearing in September. “I appreciate the arts. I’ve given them my entire building to use for years and we are still going to have a place for them.”
Meres has said on several occasions that he would not curate the new space even though Wolkoff asked him to.
“No artist is going to want to come here,” he said to the shivering crowd on the brisk Tuesday evening. “I’m not coming back and none of the other artists are going to want to come back. Not to this graveyard. I hope he enjoys his apartments.”
As the artists have lost any hope of preserving the work on the building’s walls, they will proceed with the lawsuit and intend to seek compensation for the damaged work.
“I’m suing him for everything,” Meres said.
5Pointz attorney Jeannine Channes said that because the work has been damaged, compensation jumps to $150,000 per piece and could ultimately cost Wolkoff $50 million if a judge approves.
Meres said he will buy his own building with the money he may gain from the lawsuit where he will open his own community center for the arts.
“Then we won’t have to answer to any fat cats,” he said. “But I’ll tell you what, Long Island City officially sucks now. I have no desire to stay here.”
After lighting candles, Meres had one thing to say: “They call us the vandals. They say we’re the vandals but look at this. This is vandalism. It’s art genocide.”