How a derelict factory became a work of art

Cash cow: The value of the complex went up from $40m to $200m thanks to the graffiti.

Can graffiti be considered “art”? A group of 21 people have been awarded $6.7m in damages after a building they covered with tags was demolished. But many believe it was simply vandalism.

The story of 45- 46 Davis Street in Long Island City, in the New York borough of Queens just across the East River from Manhattan, mirrors that of innumerable inner city addresses around the developed world.

The pale yellow, five-storey building first opened in 1892 to house the Neptune Metre factory, which built water metres. Then, in 1971, it was bought by Jerry Wolkoff, who started leasing the space for artists’ studios as the area gentrified in the 1980s and 1990s.

The building's exterior was graffitied over with myriad pieces of street art, and became famous worldwide. It was known as “5 Pointz” — a reference to the five boroughs of New York City.

But five years ago, Wolkoff made the controversial decision to demolish the building and replace it with a modern condo complex. The former factory is no more.

A group of 21 graffiti artists filed a lawsuit against Wolkoff, accusing him of destroying valuable pieces of artwork.

And last week, they won. Following a three-week trial in November, Judge Frederic Block ruled against Wolkoff and awarded $6.7m in damages. Block accepted that 45 artworks at the centre of the case had “recognised stature” and must receive protection under the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA).

The ruling has reawakened the debate over whether graffiti really can be considered “art”.

This debate is particularly pertinent in New York. Originating on the subway, the city quickly became famous for graffiti. But in the 1980s, an era of rapidly rising crime rates, the authorities started clamping down.

They employed a criminological idea known as the “broken windows theory”. This states that graffiti, littering and other minor examples of urban disorder feed an atmosphere where crime is normalised, therefore making violence more likely. The answer, then, is a policy of zero tolerance: cracking down on these smaller issues.

But even if graffiti is illegal, its advocates argue that this does not prevent it being art. Why should walls, buildings or trains be less worthy than canvas or marble?

Art attack

The Oxford English Dictionary defines art as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination”. Graffiti fits that definition as well as any painting by Vermeer. Art is meant to be subversive, and nothing exemplifies that better than street art. More than anything, it is about freedom. Spray away!

There is a difference between art and vandalism, say others. Imagine if you woke up one morning and your house was daubed in this ugliness. The institutions that glorify graffiti would call the police if their buildings were vandalised by it. The aim of art is beauty, and graffiti, by representing lawlessness, is not beautiful.

You Decide

  1. Is graffiti art?
  2. Do you agree with the “broken windows theory”?

Activities

  1. In one sentence, write your own definition of the word “art”.
  2. Research a piece of graffiti and write 500 words on its artistic merits (or lack thereof).

Some People Say...

“People say graffiti is ugly, irresponsible and childish... but that's only if it's done properly.”

Banksy

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
We know the rationale used by the court to confirm that these artworks had merit. Works of art, the court ruled, do not need to be mentioned in academic publications or be considered masterpieces, as the expert for the property owner had argued. It was enough, the judge said, for the 5 Pointz artists to show their professional achievements in terms of residences, teaching positions, fellowships etc.
What do we not know?
To what extent graffiti really does encourage more serious crimes. The application of the broken windows theory in New York was deemed a success, but many put the city’s decreasing crime rate in the 1990s down to increasing wealth and gentrification.

Word Watch

5 Pointz
The name was thought up by Jonathan Cohen, the building’s mastermind-curator known as Meres One. He won $1.3m in damages alone.
Five boroughs of New York City
They are the island of Manhattan, where most of New York’s famous landmarks are located, the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, located at the western end of Long Island, the Bronx, to the north of Manhattan on the mainland, and suburban Staten Island in the south.
Visual Artists Rights Act
VARA grants artists the rights to prevent intentional modification to their artworks and the destruction of artworks of “recognised stature.” Until VARA was enacted into law, artists in the United States had almost no power to protect their artworks from destruction.
Rising crime rates
In 2017 there were 290 murders in New York City. That figure reached its peak in 1990, when there were 2,245 killings. The boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island have historically had low crime rates compared to the Bronx and Manhattan.

Subjects

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