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.

In 1971, an old New York factory was bought by a man called Jerry Wolkoff. He started leasing the space for artists’ studios.

The building's exterior was graffitied over with a myriad 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 $6.7 million 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 reopened the debate over whether graffiti really can be considered “art”. Some argue that it is simply vandalism, and that it encourages crime.

But even if graffiti is often illegal, its advocates argue that this does not prevent it being art.

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 great painting. Art is meant to be subversive, and street art exemplifies that better than anything. 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. The aim of art is beauty, and graffiti, by representing lawlessness, is not beautiful.

You Decide

  1. Is graffiti art?

Activities

  1. In one sentence, write your own definition of the word “art”.

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.
What do we not know?
To what extent graffiti really does encourage more serious crimes. The theory was credited for lowering New York’s crime rates in the 1990s.

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 Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island.
Visual Artists Rights Act
VARA grants artists the rights to prevent intentional changes 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.

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