21 artists receive $6.75M after graffiti suddenly painted over

WASHINGTON, April 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A landmark compensation award by a New York court has caught the attention of artists across the United States - and beyond - as signaling a new strategy for safeguarding street art from development.

Judge Frederic Block awarded $6.75 million to 21 graffiti artists whose works were painted over without warning at a cluster of buildings in the city that for years had been the site of a globally known graffiti project called 5Pointz.

While the size of the award - which has been appealed - grabbed attention, the ruling has broader implications for cities around the world as street art has flourished, experts said.

The verdict was based on a 1990 law stipulating that artists who have been given permission to paint on buildings be allowed 90 days in which to take that artwork down.

But the law protects only art of "recognized stature" as decided by "art experts, the art community, or society in general," and the federal law had never been successfully been used in the case of graffiti-type artwork.

Block's decision last month followed a verdict handed down by a jury in November 2017 that found in favor of the artists.

The jury determined the murals were of "recognized stature," said cultural heritage attorney Leila Amineddoleh.

"This is huge because it signifies the acceptance of graffiti as legitimate and protected, not just 'outsider' or 'fringe' art," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

For two decades, the property owner at 5Pointz had given the artists permission to paint the buildings' exterior walls, and tourists from around the world showed up to view their work.

Eventually the owner, Gerald Wolkoff, wanted to demolish the buildings and develop the site. In 2013, according to the lawsuit, he had the artwork painted over in the middle of the night; the following year the buildings were torn down.

In response, 5Pointz organizers filed a lawsuit under the 1990 federal law, the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA).

Cory L. Stowers, an artist and organizer in Washington, called the white-washing "the end of an era" and said the recent verdict had ramifications across the board for artists as a way to protect their work.


Matthieu Prin of London-based BOP Consulting, which focuses on culture, said over the past 10 years cities had increasingly been recognizing street art as both a valid art form and as a tool for economic development.

"A key milestone in this shift has been the work of renowned street artist Banksy and London boroughs' efforts to protect his works from damage," said Prin, a city partnerships manager for the World Cities Culture Forum, a grouping of 32 cities.

The rise in the use of social media, which has made it easier to share images of street art, has helped cities see the value of promoting cultural tourism around the works, particularly to millennials, he said.

Stowers said increased collaboration between cities and street artists is visible in Washington, D.C., which today has more murals than ever before.

The city's main murals project, which started a decade ago as a way to combat illegal graffiti, pairs aerosol artists with communities or property owners to create 10 projects a year.

The idea is to cover a wall that is the frequent target of illegal "tagging" - spray-painting a name or logo - while also having the artist work with local youth, said Jeffrey Scott with the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

While these opportunities help artists, weak or nonexistent policies mean their work, typically painted on the side of a building or wall, is not protected from development.

"In D.C., we've had a large problem with public murals being destroyed or covered over," Stowers said.

And in response, he said, there was a "shoulder shrug, because there's no real policy, no option to protect" them.

One option would be to have art created on panels rather than directly on buildings, so that they could be removed if needed. That, though, would cost more.

"We typically want to see the murals have a lifespan of several years, and there are some that have been up for many years," said Scott.

But he acknowledged that agreements with property owners tended to be less formal than with the artists.

"Usually on a privately owned site we try to get some sort of provision of some sort of longevity — whatever they can promise," he said.

Washington is not alone: no U.S. city has a significant policy to protect the surge in public murals — although many are starting to recognize the need for such policies, Stowers said.


Stowers said the 5Pointz decision could act as a "flashpoint" that forces cities to approach the issue more seriously.

Under the United Nations' sustainable development framework, authorities are urged to consider local culture as an important driver of development.

"(The verdict) is a clear and strong sign of the growing recognition of the importance to protect and promote local forms of cultural expressions by a wider range of local institutions and authorities," the United Cities and Local Governments, a global network of cities, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

BOP's Prin said U.S. cities could learn from other countries.

"Cities around the world have been adopting policy in recent years specifically addressing street art," said BOP's Prin.

The two main threads, he said, were "policies that protect existing street art pieces and those that establish dedicated spaces for new street art."

In Bogota and Lisbon, for instance, officials have unveiled new graffiti policies aimed at strengthening the role of street art in urban life while also bolstering related regulation.

Brussels and Montreal, on the other hand, have undertaken efforts with tourists in mind, developing official maps and street art trails, said Prin. (Reporting by Carey L. Biron, Editing by Robert Carmichael and Astrid Zweynert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org and http://thisisplace.org)