Should graffiti be protected art?

The Visual Artists Rights Act, or V.A.R.A., has been protecting artists in the United States since the 1990s. It states that works made for exhibition, in limited quantity, and of recognized stature are given extra protections regardless of ownership. (Kevin Gessner/Flickr Creative Commons)

Graffiti has had a long and troubled past in terms of artistic merit, historical context and cultural significance. All three of these points came to a head in 2013 when Gerald Wolkoff, owner of a property known as 5Pointz, painted over hundreds of pieces as a step towards redeveloping the place. Following this, artists of 5Pointz took the real estate owner to court, resulting in the judge awarding the creators $6.7 million on Feb. 12th, 2018.

Imagine that: an entrepreneur punished for painting his own property. Or is it a story of vindication for the artists who spent decades at the site? Obviously, this is a case rife with controversy, already pulling in discussions about art vs. business in New York City, private property vs. public importance, graffiti vs. traditional art forms, the rich elite vs. the poor. Both sides have very real and legitimate arguments.

As the owners themselves put it, it’s better to rip the band-aid right off: 5Pointz had cultural significance, staggeringly so. It may not have been important to anyone who reads this, but the place was considered the Mecca of graffiti. The largest collection of street art, people from all over the world came to witness and make their mark on the complex. The name 5Pointz came about because of its nature as the epicenter of spray painting for the boroughs of New York. Even Wolkoff realized this, attempting to name the planned condominiums after the moniker.

While the place was owned by Wolkoff since the 1970s, graffiti artists were not there illegally. Starting in the 1990s, Wolkoff agreed that the complex could be used by artists. The place had a curator, Jonathan Cohen, who helped decide how the space would be shared among the many artists aspiring to work at 5Pointz. While it is easy to dismiss graffiti as vandalism and hoodlum activity, 5Pointz was much more organized than that, a fact that allowed the artistic scene there to flourish. Pieces were planned and carefully executed over months. 5Pointz was a landmark for street art in its stability.

The Visual Artists Rights Act, or V.A.R.A., has been protecting artists in the United States since the 1990s. It states that works made for exhibition, in limited quantity, and of recognized stature are given extra protections regardless of ownership. Under V.A.R.A. and the assumption that graffiti is art, it is clear why the artists of 5Pointz won their case legally. The ethical considerations behind V.A.R.A. and 5Pointz are still shrouded in doubt, though.

To be clear, the property was Wolkoff’s and he did state previously that he had plans to redevelop the land. He even talked of having space for graffiti art in the new condominiums. On the surface, Wolkoff was wronged. Looking deeper, though, his motivation for painting over the walls is suspect. In response to the initial announcement, artists at 5Pointz were already trying to get the site deemed protected under V.A.R.A. and similar moral rights acts. Rather than just demolishing the buildings as planned, Wolkoff took the specific measure of painting over the entirety of the place in one night. Perhaps the whitewashing was both a literal and metaphorical cover-up, and attempt to get the public to forget about their silly art.

Imagine the Louvre announcing that they would be burning the Mona Lisa for publicity. The public would be up in arms, and rightfully so. In 2013, this happened. The Mona Lisa of street art (or even the Louvre entirely) being ripped out of the world for the sake of business and publicity. Despite the inevitable controversy, the decisions by the jury and judge are well-intentioned and just. The only hope is that the recipients of the $6.7 million can leverage that to create and preserve their art once more.


Peter Fenteany is a weekly columnist  for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at peter.fenteany@uconn.edu.