Graffiti artists learn early not to get too attached. Ephemera is as central to their medium as spray paint. Some works last months, others don’t make it through the night. Even the most famous pieces are not guaranteed to last. Many of the defining works of the late 1960s and 1970s in New York City—“DONDI” wrapped around the side of an entire subway car, “TAKI 183” sprayed on a brick facade—have been lost, painted over, or torn down entirely. So much of what is enshrined in the iconic 1983 graffiti documentary Style Wars cannot be found in the urban landscape today.
All of that made the demolition of 5Pointz, a legendary graffiti venue in Long Island City, Queens, an unlikely battleground for the soul of the art form. In the early 2000s, the derelict warehouse at 45–46 Davis Street became a haven for graffiti artists, thanks to an unusual arrangement. With the five-story complex in sparse use since the 1970s and entirely empty since 2009, the artist Jonathan Cohen—whose tag is Meres One—struck a deal with the building’s owner, Gerald “Jerry” Wolkoff: Artists who wanted to paint big, intensive projects could do so on the building’s exterior without running afoul of anti-graffiti laws, which had been ratcheted up during Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s reign in the 1990s. That pact created a flourishing street artist community around 5Pointz: The building featured work from some 1,500 artists from all over the world, earning it the title the “United Nations of Graffiti.”
The arrangement went belly up in 2013, when Wolkoff decided that the building would be razed and converted into ritzy condominiums in the increasingly posh neighborhood, the cultural cachet of its painted exterior converted into a high-dollar payout.
Graffiti artists, including the British artist Banksy, clamored for the site’s preservation, while New Yorkers lamented the sacrifice of another cultural artifact on the altar of the city’s real-estate development machine. Under cover of darkness in November of that year, Wolkoff took advantage of a stalled court injunction to have the building whitewashed—over a decade’s worth of artwork gone overnight.
Then, in 2018, a court found that Wolkoff was liable for $6.75 million in total damages. The settlement, which is under appeal, was hailed as a victory for the artists. But it also signaled a strange new chapter in the history of graffiti. In the early days, by creed, a graffiti artist would ask neither for permission nor compensation. Now, after courting the former, artists at 5Pointz were receiving the latter. Graffiti was once a countercultural threat that conservative forces roundly maligned as a racially coded stand-in for urban delinquency. It was an archenemy of both the New York Police Department and real-estate developers for the supposed downward pull it exerted on property values. Now, graffiti had not only helped catalyze gentrification of one of the city’s fastest growing neighborhoods, but was also being handsomely rewarded for it, with legal recognition by a judge and jury.
“Real estate and art go hand in hand now,” Meres One, who was the lead plaintiff in the suit against Wolkoff and his associates, told me this spring. Graffiti can ruin a neighborhood, it turns out—just not the way the city expected.
Modern graffiti wasn’t invented in New York, but it took hold in the late 1960s and 1970s as a favored mode of cultural expression for the city’s creative young and poor. It was, among certain classes, loathed. It exploded in popularity just as the city was hurtling toward bankruptcy in the ’70s, which led graffiti to be identified with all the social ills that then plagued New York. Gangs of unruly teens, roaming the streets with no respect for private property or public infrastructure, joined a disreputable cast of characters who had turned New York into a dystopian nightmare. “Pickpocketing, and shoplifting, and graffiti defacing our public and private walls, they’re all in the same area of destroying our lifestyle and making it difficult to enjoy life,” said then-Mayor Ed Koch in Style Wars. “I think it has to be responded to.”
Graffiti enforcement quickly became a flagship component of “broken windows” policing, which encouraged cops to treat minor property crime as a gateway to violent crime, and punish it accordingly. “They’re trying to make it look like graffiti writers break windows and everything, it ain’t even like that,” said a young artist in Style Wars.
Even as the hip-hop era subsided, and the forces of financialization took over the city, the campaign to criminalize and stigmatize graffiti soldiered on. In 1994, The New York Times reported on a crackdown in which a 25-member vandal squad arrested 21 people in 17 days. In 1995, Giuliani established the Anti-Graffiti Task Force by executive order to examine “the effectiveness of existing provisions of law aimed at curbing graffiti vandalism,” and propose “amendments to strengthen such legislation.” Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern said the deleterious effect of widespread graffiti was best shown in 1962’s A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess’s tale about nihilistic youths with a taste for ultra-violence. “Graffiti is not a fashionable expression of the counterculture as it has been regarded in the past,” he said. “The ’60s are over.”
In 1999, Giuliani’s office helped lead an effort known as Graffiti-Free NYC (GFNYC). It allowed property owners to report illicit street art via the city’s 311 civic hotline or fill out a Forever Graffiti Free form giving the city blanket consent to “clean” their property. Even in 2019 in Brooklyn, it would not be out of place to see a GFNYC van on one side of the street and a tour headed to the Bushwick Collective, an open-air street art shrine, on the other.
As police chased graffiti artists from their canvasses of choice in the city’s subway depots, tunnels, and bridges, they began to take refuge in arrangements that relied on the kindness of more lenient and enlightened property owners. The art form metamorphosed, with graffiti, once known for its hurried, look-over-your-shoulder “throw ups,” merging with a nascent genre of street art: the less nefarious “mural.”
That change was reflected at a recent panel presented by the Center for Art Law at Fordham Law School titled “International Perspectives on Street Art.” In a sheet of key terms, graffiti was defined as “unauthorized artworks that are word-based,” while murals are “works typically authorized, if not commissioned.” Street art can encapsulate both these terms, although exact definitions vary among artists—some artists further legitimize the medium with the term “aerosol art.”
Was the work at 5Pointz graffiti, a mural, or something else? Well, it depends who you ask. The whole premise of GFNYC, marking its twentieth anniversary this year, runs against the appraisal work done on 5Pointz, which debunked the notion that graffiti brings properly values down. Quite the opposite: The art dramatically increased the value of Wolkoff’s property. And Wolkoff didn’t need a court judgment to know it. In 2012, the production company Summit Entertainment had rented studio space from Wolkoff in order to shoot its film Now You See Me with 5Pointz art as backdrop. By 2013, as many as 10 tour buses, chock-full of tourists, were coming to 5Pointz a day. Rents in the fledgling new cultural epicenter of Long Island City went up—and developers took notice.
In 2016, a study by Warwick Business School used Flickr uploads to analyze the relationship between photos of street art and London property values. “[T]he researchers’ analysis revealed that neighborhoods with a higher proportion of ‘art’ photographs also experienced greater relative gains in property prices.”
And in America, as crime dropped in the 1990s and affluent college graduates enacted a great migration from the suburbs to the country’s cities, graffiti became the literal poster board for the “authentic” urban culture they were seeking—driving up prices along the way. It was only a matter of time before the artists themselves got wise.
As it’s continued to exist in legal limbo, aerosol art has, under GFNYC’s two-decades-long watch, struck a precarious balance, straddling a public square full of ticket-writing cops and a private sphere eager to convert graffiti’s cultural capital into a quick buck. In the wake of 5Pointz’s whitewashing, Marie-Cécile Flageul and Meres One co-founded a group called 5Pointz Creates, a collective of those who worked at the Queens site, to put on “pop up events dedicated to the spirit of the Graffiti Mecca.” In 2016, 5Pointz Creates was approached by citizenM hotels to create the Museum of Street Art (MoSA), a free “museum” inside a hotel, showcasing the work of artists who formerly painted at 5Pointz.
CitizenM is a Netherlands-based chain of “boutique” accommodations that provides “affordable luxury in some of the most exciting cities in the world.” Its location on the Bowery in lower Manhattan, one of two in New York City, is a far cry from the blighted urban areas that incubated the city’s graffiti scene—it’s not often that getting pushed out of Queens lands one in Manhattan.
Producing work for a corporate client might seem anathema to the hip-hop generation of yore. But, according to Flageul, the legal options for graffiti artists in New York City have dwindled, and when the hotel’s representatives promised wall blanche, the opportunity proved irresistible. The arrangement also seemed to resolve the ethical dilemma of contributing to gentrification. “We don’t want to be a tool of displacement,” Flageul told me.
Every artist Flageul approached to be a part of her MoSA curation said yes. And all the artists were paid the same amount for their work, while receiving the same expense budget, no matter their experience level. Older graffiti artists might have furtively tagged the exterior of such an establishment; now, the artists of 5Pointz were working on the inside, with permission, for a paycheck, the radical ambition of the graffiti project replaced by something much more modest.
Developers are more than willing to take advantage of a changing graffiti culture. Down the street from citizenM is the Houston Bowery Wall, owned by the Goldman family, one of New York City’s highest-profile billionaire real estate developers. In the last two years, the wall has been the site of both protest art by Banksy and an ad for Instagram’s inclusivity and kindness campaign. (It is in the Goldmans’ best interest for these to be virtually indistinguishable.)
The Goldman family owns property in the Wynwood section of Miami, which is now known for the street art at Wynwood Walls. “Wynwood was nondescript and industrial. Where other people would see—excuse my language—shitty tagging all over the place, my dad said, ‘Wow! These buildings are canvases,’” Jessica Goldman Srebnick, CEO of Goldman Properties, said in a 2015 interview. Tony Goldman is also credited with revitalizing Miami Beach’s South Beach in the 1980s.
Goldman Properties calls its ability to flip neighborhoods “Gentlefication,” but there is nothing gentle about it. In 2016, a property adjacent to the Wynwood Walls sold for $53.5 million, or $1,250 per square foot, according to the Miami Herald. While some homeowners are seeing their property values increase, renters and others are being priced out. And though developers have offered a trifling number of affordable housing units in the area, it’s not enough to meaningfully slow the pace of change.
Not all graffiti artists have been eager to participate in that process. In a strange reversal of the Giuliani years, when graffiti artists were seen by the law as miscreants to be gleefully locked up, artists have started using the law to defend their art against corporate usurpers. In 2016, a photographer used a mural on a parking structure in Detroit that was painted on commission by the Swiss street artist Adrian Falkner as the backdrop for a Cadillac ad without the artist’s knowledge. When Falkner sued for copyright infringement, the court came down against General Motors.
In 2018, H&M settled a lawsuit with artist Jason “Revok” Williams, who had sent a cease-and-desist letter to the clothing company after it shot an ad at a Brooklyn handball court featuring his work. Before settling, H&M fought back on the basis that his work was done illegally.
But those artists are largely exceptions, working against a tide of more corporate-friendly work. “The artists that are co-opted [by brands] the most have a style that plays into the popular notion of what art should be,” Renée Vara, who was enlisted as an art expert in the 5Pointz case, told me.
So if the supposed threat caused by graffiti has been neutralized, why hasn’t the law kept pace? In a CityLab article published in February, a former research and policy adviser at the National Network for Safe Communities wrote, “The broken windows paradigm remains active throughout policing. Perhaps most significantly, it still colors how the public views violence and demands responses to it: both as a danger that characterizes entire poor communities of color, and as a menace that poses a constant threat.” The same style of artwork that gave rise to Wynwood Walls was lumped into a series of policies that terrorized a generation of minority citizens. No matter how many white gentrifiers move to Bed-Stuy, that era is not dead—indeed, it’s not even past.
In Style Wars, then-MTA Chairman Richard Ravitch, who is often credited with rescuing New York’s subway from infamy as a graffiti-plastered hellscape, said of the youths tagging the subway lines: “It isn’t the energy that is misplaced, it’s the value system that’s misplaced.” One could just as easily say the same for a city that rewards real-estate developers that use street art to lure gentrifiers, while calling that same art ugly and antisocial.
It seems well past time for détente between the city’s power brokers and one of its signature forms of expression. “The laws are the laws. If I could change anything [I’d] do one legal paint park in each borough,” Meres One told me. Such a proposal would hardly be groundbreaking: Public paint parks have had success in cities like London, Prague, and Buenos Aires.
What such an accord would mean for graffiti, an art form that has increasingly been defanged, coopted, and commodified, remains an open question. And at any rate, there’s little evidence that a truce is under consideration. For Meres One and other graffiti artists, there aren’t many viable options. “I have no legal walls. I can’t get up and say, ‘I really feel like painting today,’” he told me. “Now the options are a mural project that might be exploited,” a paid commission, or nothing. “If it wasn’t for the wall in my yard I’d go stir crazy.”