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Americas

New York 'graffiti mecca' destined for demolition

© Photo: Sophie Pilgrim/ FRANCE 24.

Text by Sophie PILGRIM

Latest update : 2013-11-19

What is thought to be the world's largest graffiti haven is set to be demolished after a New York court found no legal grounds to preserve the disused factory, known as 5 Pointz, which is home to artwork by some of graffiti's most prominent artists.

Artists aren't exaggerating when they describe 5 Pointz as a 'graffiti mecca'. Standing among a mass of disused warehouses in an industrial corner of Long Island City, Queens, artists and tourists from all over the world turn up on a daily basis to visit the site.

Initially set up to provide 20,000 metres of “canvas” to graffiti artists from the 5 boroughs of New York, 5 Pointz has long outgrown its title.

Today, the site boasts the work of some of the world's most prominent aerosol artists, from France's Dja'louz to Japan's Shiro. It has been dubbed 'The United Nations of Graffiti'.

It has also been listed as one of Time Out's “50 best New York attractions” and featured in numerous music videos, even attracting commercial acts like Joss Stone.

But by the end of this year, the entire site is scheduled for demolition.

5 Pointz is owned by developer Jerry Wolkoff, who after decades of letting the artists use the disused factory, is now planning to build a $400 million high-end apartment complex on the site. In October, his plans were approved by the local authorities, which say construction of the two towers will provide some 1,000 jobs and as many homes.

Resident artists have tried to thwart the project and earlier this month gained a temporary restraining order against any damage to the artworks under the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA). But on November 12, a New York court denied the artists a permanent injunction, giving Wolkoff the go-ahead to demolish the site.

'A valuable location'

On Saturday artists and supporters gathered at the site in protest against the decision. “This doesn't mean anything, we'll carry on fighting whatever,” 5 Pointz curator Jonathan Cohen, known by his tag 'Meres One', told FRANCE 24.

“This is a special place because it's by us and for us,” he said. “We've managed to create such a valuable location with no funding.”

“Graffiti is part of New York's identity,” 5 Pointz spokesperson Marie Flageul told FRANCE 24. “It groups every ethnicity, every age, every social background. We are lucky to house it here; you can't just throw it out.”

Cohen said some of the resident artists in the building have leases running until January – before which the building cannot be destroyed. He is counting on the extra time to devise a new plan.

But the only legal option remaining for the artists is to take their case to an appeals court.

Federal Judge Frederick Block, who ruled on the case last week, expressed his own frustration at having to order the site's demolition. Aerosol art is not recognised as a genuine art form in the US – the same goes in most countries – leaving the legal authorities no power to protect it.

“I love the work and it’s going to tear my heart out to see it torn down, but as a judge I have to apply the law,” Block said. “I can't grant the injunction.”

Lawful art-making

5 Pointz will no doubt see an increase in visitors in the coming months, as tourists and artists flock to the doomed “open air museum” before it is destroyed.

One of those making sure to visit before it's too late is Travis Suda, a 23-year-old aerosol artist from Portland, Oregon. He was visiting the site for the first time on November 12 when news came in that a permanent injunction would not be granted to the artists.

“It's been my dream to come here for so long, I had to come when I found out it might get knocked down,” he told FRANCE 24. “It's turned out to be a really sad day.”

Another dispirited visitor, Harold Hejazi travelled from his home in Victoria, Canada, to the site. Hejazi, a 24-year-old high-school art teacher, campaigns for what he calls “responsible visual art;” an excellent example of which is 5 Pointz, he explained.

“Places like 5 Pointz are ideal as they provide a safe space for lawful art-making instead of pushing kids to do it illegally. There should be more of these sorts of places and they should be respected,” he told FRANCE 24.

Hejazi believes that until authorities recognise street art as a legitimate art form, the battle for lawful spaces like 5 Pointz will continue.

“Street art should be recognised as one of the greatest art forms of the 21st century,” he said. “5 Pointz is historic, it will be a great loss to the cause.”

'Not over yet'

Cohen expressed confidence following Saturday's rally that 5 Pointz would escape its sentence, writing “it's not over until we say it is” on the Save 5 Pointz Facebook page.

Judge Block advised the group to re-apply for landmark status before the Landmarks Preservation Committee. That way, the decision would be left to incoming mayor, Bill de Blasio, he said.

But the committee has already rejected a request from the artists, stipulating that a site must be at least 30 years old to be eligible for landmark status. 5 Pointz is only 20 years old.

A clue to what Cohen's last resort might be could be found in one of the guest speakers at Saturday's event – Captain America of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Cohen has already said he will chain himself to the building when the bulldozers arrive. The Wolkoff towers may be longer in the making than planned.

Date created : 2013-11-17

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