In a sweeping 32-page decision eviscerating the legal arguments of a disgruntled Queens real estate developer, a US Appeals Court affirmed the rights and monetary damages awarded to a group of graffiti artists whose works were destroyed without warning or consent in 2013.
The artists sued the developer, Gerald Wolkoff, in 2013 for violating their rights after he whitewashed their work at the famous 5Pointz graffiti art mecca in New York to make way for condos. A jury ruled in favor of the artists in November 2017, but it was up to a judge to determine the extent of the damages.
In February 2018, Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Frederick Block awarded the artists a total $6.75 million in a landmark decision. The sum included $150,000—the maximum legal penalty—for each of the 45 destroyed works at the center of the case.
The trial was a key test of the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), which grants visual artists certain “moral rights” for their work. Previous VARA cases rarely made it to trial, and were instead settled privately.
But the act, which was added to copyright laws in 1990, disallows the modification of works in ways that could be considered harmful to artists’ reputations, and grants protections to artworks deemed to be of “recognized stature.”
In his appeal, Wolkoff challenged practically every aspect of the decision by Judge Block, from the amount of the award, to the suggestion that the graffiti murals at 5Pointz merited protection under the “recognized stature” clause.
But Wolkoff was rebuffed on all points in the latest ruling, and the court took the additionally extraordinary step of citing his own lawyers against him. “Wolkoff’s own expert acknowledged that temporary artwork can achieve recognized stature,” according to the decision.
The ruling also took Wolkoff to task for making misrepresentations about how his business would have been harmed if he did not move to immediately whitewash the works. In his arguments, Wolkoff claimed that certain tax credits available to him would have expired if he did not move quickly to paint over the works.
Yet he did not even have a demolition permit for the building when he began his campaign to cover up the murals.
Congratulations 5 Pointz, you all earned every penny from this disingenuous arrogant jerk.