A federal judge on Monday awarded graffiti artists $6.7 million in damages after a developer whitewashed their artwork, which was spray painted on the walls of several blighted warehouse buildings at the 5 Pointz mural art space in Queens, New York City.
U.S. District Judge Frederic Block in Brooklyn said that 45 of the 49 paintings were recognized works of art that Jerry Wolkoff, who owned the buildings, “wrongfully and willfully destroyed,” the Associated Press reported.
The case arose after Wolfkoff in 2013 chose to paint over the graffiti as he was redeveloping the site to make room for luxury high-rise residences. The buildings were torn down a year later.
Wolkoff, who owned the site for years, had allowed the artists to use the buildings as canvases for their work, prior to deciding to redevelop the area. Wolkoff’s attorney argued that he had told the artists in advance that the buildings were not permanent as he had plans to redevelop.
Twenty-one artists sued Wolkoff under the Visual Rights Act, a federal law that protects artists’ rights even if another individual owns the physical artwork.
Block wrote that had Wolkoff waited for his permits to be officially authorized by the city, as they were 10 months after the graffiti was painted over, the artists would have had no legal recourse.
“If not for Wolkoff’s insolence, these damages would not have been assessed,” Block wrote. “If he did not destroy 5 Pointz until he received his permits and demolished it 10 months later, the Court would not have found that he had acted willfully.”
Block seemed to take particular offense at the developer’s lack of remorse for his actions.
“Wolkoff has been singularly unrepentant. He was given multiple opportunities to admit the whitewashing was a mistake, show remorse, or suggest he would do things differently if he had another chance,” Block said.
Block specifically expressed his regret that the artwork, which had become a prominent tourist destination, was whitewashed and left to stand for 10 months before the permits were approved to demolish the site.
“The shame of it all is that since 5 Pointz was a prominent tourist attraction, the public would undoubtedly have thronged to say its goodbyes during those 10 months and gaze at the formidable works of aerosol art for the last time,” Block wrote. “It would have been a wonderful tribute for the artists that they richly deserved.”
The artists had once hoped to buy the buildings, before their value increased to over $200 million.