In November 2013, a group of graffiti artists sued real estate developer Jerry Wolkoff for painting over their artwork at the 5Pointz building in Queens, and after four years of legal battle, the federal jury finally passed a verdict that could provide legal protection for street artists across the country.
On Nov. 9, the jury ruled that the graffiti made by 21 artists was legally protected under the Visual Artists Right Act and Wolkoff broke the law by painting over it. According to The Guardian, this is the first time that graffiti or “aerosol” art was given federal protection.
“It confirms that aerosol art is the same as any other fine art,” said Eric Baum, legal counsel representing the 21 artists. “And that the artist deserves dignity and respect.”
Baum added that the jury’s verdict is “a federal statute”, stressing it applies to the entire country and not just New York.
To win the jury’s favor, the artists’ legal team had to prove their work was of “recognized stature” that followed standards stipulated under the 1990 VARA law. As proof of the merit of their work, Baum pointed to their clients’ experience and recognition within the field of art.
Although the jury’s verdict is a boost for the artists, the case is not yet fully-resolved as the judge still has to make his own decision. Baum said that the jury’s decision will be taken into account but the judge could pass a different decision.
The 5Pointz building, which was once a manufacturing facility for water meters, was bought by Wolkoff in the 1970s. Although he gave the artists permission to paint murals on the property, he warned them that he had always intended to demolish it.
In 2013, Wolkoff put his plans into action to make way for an apartment complex. On the night of Nov. 19, 2013, the artists found the building almost entirely painted in white, covering art they worked on for years.