The Making of the Moral Rights Case: The Factual and Legal Background of the 5Pointz Trial

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[Observing 5Pointz Trial], courtroom art by Elizabeth Williams (Nov. 3, 2017).

By Laura B. Richardson*

 

5Pointz, the world renowned “graffiti mecca” as it was once known, has become the subject of a legal battle which has culminated in a jury trial in the Eastern District of New York. Cohen v. G&M Realty L.P., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 50943 is a case brought by twenty-one graffiti artist plaintiffs against the defendant property owners of the 5Pointz buildings, for the destruction of 49 aerosol artworks (numbers of plaintiff-artists and works have been changing between 2013 and 2017). The artists are suing for infringement of their rights under the Visual Artists Rights Act 1990 (“VARA”), 17 U.S.C. § 106A, which protects rights of living artists whose visual art works are of recognized stature.

Background

In 1971, Jerry Wolkoff, a real estate developer from Brooklyn who started his own residential development company in his late teens, purchased an industrial complex in a “gritty” industrial neighborhood at 45–46 Davis Street, Long Island City, Queens, New York. The property extended across a 200,000 square-foot factory complex. Twenty years later, Wolkoff authorized the site to become the “Phun Phactory,” where graffiti artists were permitted to paint on the walls. The Phun Phactory was an effort by Pat DiLillo in the early 1990s to discourage illegal graffiti vandalism and create a legal space for local street artists to execute and display their work. 

In 2002, Jonathan Cohen (known by his tag name “Meres One”), a graffiti artist born in 1973 in the South Bronx and raised in Queens, New York, met with Wolkoff and offered to curate urban a.k.a. aerosol a.k.a graffiti works at the Queens complex. He proceeded to rename and develop the site, now known as 5Pointz, into an artistic hub. According to Cohen, Wolkoff welcomed graffiti art on his property with three rules: no pornography, no religion, and no politics to be painted at the site. Cohen was also aware that Wolkoff would one day develop the property, and that the buildings, and the paintings on their walls, would become history.

With Cohen’s curation, both the quality of artwork at 5Pointz and 5Pointz’s reputation grew significantly until it reached the level of an internationally celebrated open-air aerosol art exhibition. Between 2002 and 2013, numerous tourists and aerosol artists from all over the world visited 5Pointz to witness and paint at the iconic venue. With the increased tourism and artistic community presence, the surrounding neighborhood improved considerably.

“Save 5Pointz”

In the wake of a real estate boom in Long Island City beginning in 2010, Wolkoff was ready to capitalize on the rising property value and indicated his intent to redevelop the 5Pointz site into high-rise apartment towers. On August 21, 2013, the City Planning Commission, the responsible body for urban planning related to the growth and development of New York City, issued the permit for the demolition of the 5Pointz buildings and for the rebuilding on the site of two towers containing 800 luxury rentals and 200 affordable units. The City Planning Commission did require, as a condition for issuing the building permit, that the new residential complex include 3,300 square feet of exterior art panels “to be used to maintain artist street wall art in the area.”

In the petition filed on October 10, 2013, seventeen graffiti artists, including Cohen, sought to enjoin the demolition and to preserve 5Pointz for street artists. In addition, artists filed requests for landmark status evaluation by the New York City Landmark Preservation Commission (the “Commission”). The Commission, created in 1965, is responsible for protecting and regulating New York City’s architecturally, historically, and culturally significant buildings and sites. On August 20, 2013, it denied the request to designate 5Pointz as a landmark because the feature of interest—the artwork—had not been in existence for at least thirty years. Cohen also sought funding to acquire the 5Pointz site in order to “create the first aerosol art museum in the world” (Jonathan Cohen Direct Examination October 30, 2017).

Street Artists Go to Court

On October 10, 2013, artists, represented by Jeannine Leigh Widmer Chanes, sought a federal court order to preliminarily enjoin the destruction of the buildings, invoking their Visual Artists Rights Act 1990 (VARA) rights. On October 17, 2013, the Eastern District Court issued a temporary restraining order against the property owner, enjoining Wolkoff from altering the building in any way whilst the Court considered the plaintiffs’ motion. On November 12, 2013 the Court lifted the restraining order and denied the plaintiffs’ request for preliminary injunctive relief. Judge Block indicated that a written opinion would follow, and on November 20, his opinion explained that going to the issues of both irreparable harm and the balancing of the hardships, “the transient nature of the plaintiffs’ works” was the “ineluctable factor which preclude[d] either preliminary or permanent injunctive relief.”

Between November 12 and November 20, Wolkoff apparently denied artists access to 5Pointz and on November 19, he ordered 5Pointz whitewashed overnight, without any notification to the artists. In his deposition on Friday, November 3, 2017 Wolkoff admitted that he hired and paid in cash a crew of painters, who began covering 5Pointz with white (and blue and black) paint at 4 a.m.. Some of the murals were covered in their entirety, while others were partially obscured by whitewash, with ghosts of the mutilated art peeping from under the quick job of reclaiming 5Pointz by its legal owner. The compound structures were not actually demolished until months later in August 2014.

The artists subsequently sued, seeking damages for the destruction of visual works of art at 5Pointz, in violation of their rights under the Visual Artists Rights Act 1990.

In the defense’s opening statement on October 17th of the inaugural jury truly to hear a VARA case, Wolkoff’s attorneys characterized the whitewashing as a humanitarian act, “ripping off the Band-Aid” and covering the works so as to save the artists from the distress of seeing their art sit on the walls waiting for demolition for several months.

Moving up in the World

Graffiti and aerosol art has rapidly evolved from a type of illicit activity in its formative years to a hip and popular contemporary form of visual expression, legitimized both by the aesthetics and skills of the artists as well as the art market forces that have voted with increasing sales and popularity of this form of art. Street artists have been recognized by gallery owners and goers, with an increased number of exhibitions, as well as increased instances of infringements against street artists on behalf of fashion designers and corporations (McDonalds, Cavalli, Vince).

The 5Pointz case is important for its symbolism, where artists who have “street cred” and undeniable talent, are testing the limits of the established order separating the rarified world of “high art” from the fringe, which is likely to be relevant to the great “cross-section of society” referenced in the formulated legal language.

Moral rights of artists did not come naturally to the American jurisprudence. The Visual Artists Rights Act 1990, 17 U.S.C. § 106A (“VARA”) was enacted in response to the United States’ accession to the 1886 Berne Convention, which requires that member states protect copyright authors’ numerous moral rights. (Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, 1886, Article 6bis (1)). VARA grants the author of a “work of visual art” only the right to paternity and to prevent intentional distortion, mutilation or other modification of the work that would be prejudicial to their reputation; and, in the case of works of “recognized stature,” the right to prevent their destruction (17 U.S.C. §106A(a)).

One of the main issues, and indeed a deciding factor, in the pending 5Pointz case is whether the graffiti art murals are of “recognized stature”. This is a high bar to reach for a form of art born on the streets of poor urban neighborhoods and practiced predominantly by first and second generation immigrants. There has been relatively little case law on the statutory interpretation and application, but the standard for “recognized stature” that has been formulated and applied by the 2nd and 7th Circuit courts in previous cases has required: 

“(1) that the visual art in question has “stature,” i.e. is viewed as meritorious, and

(2) that this stature is “recognized” by art experts, other members of the artistic community, or by some cross-section of society.”

(Martin v. City of Indianapolis 192 F.3d 608 (7th Cir. 1999)); (Carter v. Helmsley-Spear, Inc., 861 F. Supp. 303 (S.D.N.Y. 1994) affirmed in part, vacated in part, reversed in part, 71 F.3d 77 (2d Cir. 1995)).

This case, having survived multiple motions for dismissal, has entered its trial stage on October 17th, 2017 before Senior District Judge Frederick Block at the Eastern District of New York Federal Courthouse in Brooklyn. With no precedent to follow, the case has been characterized by the Judge as “an odd ball cup of tea,” and it is uncertain whether the works of aerosol art will meet the standard of recognized stature required for a successful VARA claim. Years ago, in the early days of graffiti, which was regarded as mere vandalism or tagging, there likely would not have been a viable legal argument that graffiti could be a work of visual art of recognized stature. Just as the 5Pointz venue did, the 5Pointz case demonstrates the progress and evolution of graffiti into an established and legitimate form of art that requires vast technical skill and has aesthetic and cultural merit.

Regardless of the outcome, this case is a cautionary tale for artists as well as real property owners who permit graffiti art on their property to contemplate moral rights waivers as a safeguard against similar litigations. Given that the United States does not afford robust moral rights protections, VARA rights can be waived.

Closing arguments and jury instructions are scheduled for November 6, 2017.

* * *

5Pointz Chronology

1971– Jerry Wolkoff purchases property at 45–46 Davis Street Long Island City, Queens, New York.

1993 – The site is established as the “Phun Phactory” and Wolkoff grants artists permission to paint on building.

2002 – Jonathan Cohen becomes curator of 5Pointz.

2002-2013 – 5Pointz becomes internationally recognized “open air aerosol art museum” and “mecca of graffiti art” as top street artists flock to New York to paint at 5Pointz and tourists visit from all over the world to experience the murals at 5Pointz.

2010 – Real estate boom and sharp increase in property value in the Long Island City area.

August 21, 2013  New York City Landmark Preservation Commission denies granting 5Pointz landmark status.

August 21, 2013 – The City Planning Commission issues building permit authorizing the destruction of the 5Pointz buildings and the building of two-high rise towers containing 800 luxury rentals and more than 200 affordable units.

October 10, 2013 – Plaintiffs file complaint and motion for preliminary injunction to prevent the destruction of the premises, invoking their VARA rights.

October 17, 2013 – Court issues a temporary restraining order against the property owner.

November 12, 2013 – Court issues an order denying plaintiffs’ request for preliminary injunctive relief to prevent the destruction of their paintings.

November 19, 2013 – Whitewashing of building occurs overnight.

June 17, 2014 – Plaintiffs file the Cohen Complaint. In it, four claims are pled: (1) VARA, (2) intentional infliction of emotional distress (“IIED”), (3) conversion, and (4) property damage. 

August 2014– Demolition of whitewashed 5Pointz buildings.

June 3, 2015 – Maria Castillo and other artists (“Castillo Plaintiffs”) initiate a separate lawsuit against the defendants (“Castillo Matter”). As in Cohen, the Castillo Plaintiffs adduce the same four claims in their pleadings.

October 17, 2017 – Trial begins in Federal court, J. Block presiding.

* * *

*About the Author: Laura B. Richardson is serving as the Fall 2017 Postgraduate Legal Fellow with the Center for Art Law. She obtained her LLB from King’s College London in 2016 and is currently an LLM candidate at NYU School of Law with a specialization in Competition, Innovation and Information Law. She can be reached at lbr312@nyu.edu

 

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