A unique lawsuit that’s currently being tried in New York City could potentially have major implications regarding artists’ ownership of their work, specifically when it comes to street art.
A group of street artists is suing a building owner over the destruction of hundreds of works of what court documents call ‘aerosol art’ that once adorned the walls of the building complex known as ‘5Pointz’ in the Queens neighborhood of Long Island City. In 2013, the owner, who had given the artists permission to spray paint on the building, whitewashed the facade one night. He planned to demolish and develop the complex. The artists say not only did they didn’t have time to document their work, but that the ‘recognized stature’ of their works and the building qualify for protection obscure federal law called the Visual Artists Rights Act, a 1990 statute protecting works of art of ‘recognized stature’ on someone else’s property from being destroyed.
The 20 artists claim the building’s owner, Jerry Wolkoff, didn’t give them notice in writing at least 90 days in advance, lead time that they say would’ve given them a chance to document and preserve their artwork. They will have to prove that their works are indeed of ‘recognized stature,’ a battle that some legal experts say will be an uphill one. The property owner, Jerry Wolkoff, says the artists knew from the beginning that the building would be torn down one day. He also argues that the artists themselves were destroying each other’s work when they painted a new piece over someone else’s. Finally, there’s the contention that he owns the building and, in the absence of any written agreement regarding the existence of the artwork, he can choose whether or not to demolish it.
Do you think a work of graffiti or street art can rise to the point of qualifying as art protected under law? What about a street artist? If so, should the property owner have to preserve it? What are the implications of this lawsuit for future street artists’ claims to their work?
Jon Tobin, attorney and co-founder of Counsel for Creators, a Los Angeles-based law firm focusing on the needs of creative businesses and individuals
Sarah Odenkirk, Los Angeles-based art lawyer and educator; she is the founder of Art Law Resource, an online network of legal professionals who provide service to the creative community