In a landmark ruling, 21 New York street artists have sued and won $6.7m in damages from the owner of a building who destroyed their graffiti when he had the building demolished.

On 12 February, after a three-week trial in November, Judge Frederic Block ruled against Jerry Wolkoff, owner of the 5Pointz complex in Queens, New York, conferring the biggest award on the building’s mastermind-curator, graffiti artist Meres One, real name Jonathan Cohen.

The demolition of the former factory site turned graffiti mecca began in August 2014. In 2013, artists had tried to oppose the warehouse’s destruction, but an attempt to win an injunction to prevent the owner from knocking it down was unsuccessful.

In the 1990s, Wolkoff had agreed to allow the derelict factory to be used as a showcase for local graffiti talent. Called the Phun Factory, it was later renamed 5Pointz by Meres One in 2002. Under the artist’s watchful eye, it evolved into an “aerosol art centre” and became famous the world over, a huge draw for graffiti aficionados and tourists alike.

In the end, Wolkoff profited from the graffiti and its destruction, when the value of the complex went up from $40m to $200m and permission to build luxury condos was obtained. Destroying 5Pointz, the judge stressed, permitted Wolkoff to realize that value.

The court on the hearing took into account that 5Pointz had become an attraction for visitors to New York, with busloads of tourists, schoolchildren and even weddings heading to the site. Also thanks to Meres One’s savvy stewardship for more than a decade, not only was the complex painted regularly by talented graffiti artists from all over the world, 5Pointz also attracted movie producers, advertising companies and bands, and was used as a location for the climax for the 2013 film Now You See Me.

Judge Block accepted that 45 artworks at the center of the case had “recognised stature” and must receive protection under the US Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), a piece of legislation which was introduced in the US in 1990 to protect artists’ moral rights – but has rarely been applied in their favor.

In the end, the decision clearly marks the evolution of graffiti and street art, long considered to be temporary or transient art forms. It is now clear that artistic movements such as these aim to become more permanent forms of art, and that they have achieved a status similar to the one traditionally held by works of “fine art”.

So the gap between “street art” and “fine art” is narrowing. As 5Pointz curator, Meres One put it: “This case will probably change the way art is perceived for generations to come.”

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