Wolkoff granted permission to artists to paint on the building in 1993, when Long Island City wasn’t hot property. In 2000, PS1 in LIC, a nonprofit started in 1971 to use derelict buildings for art (PS1 stands for “Public School 1”; the nonprofit was housed in a former public school building), became affiliated with the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, turning into MoMA PS1. That made the location more attractive to artists. By 2002, this part of western Queens was becoming cool, and Wolkoff gave an artists’ group his blessing to make 5Pointz a hub, along with keys to office space in the building.
Fast forward to 2013, New York real estate was exploding. The building’s location was highly desirable; Brooklyn and Queens were flourishing and New Yorkers needed to expand into new territory. They chose the old manufacturing hub, LIC, which by 2016 was “home to New York’s building boom,” according to the Financial Times (paywall). The New York Times in 2015 wrote (paywall) about LIC “for the good commute.” It was also attracting the fashion industry “for its price and proximity.”
Wolkoff saw the change happening and wanted to cash in. But he knew the artists were attached to the building. In October of that year, he stealthily whitewashed 5Pointz at night. Soon after, the building was demolished and Wolkoff’s companies began work on two luxury-apartment high-rises that would capitalize on the locale’s street cred by referencing the graffiti and incorporating street art into the decor.
In the lawsuit—a consolidation of two cases brought by various artists against the developer’s companies—the muralists argue that their work contributed to the improvement of LIC. They claim 5Pointz was of such prominent international stature that Wolkoff should not have destroyed it without permission and proper notice, providing time for them to salvage what they could, based on the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990.
That law grants artists “moral rights” to works of prominent stature. Basically, it gives artists the ability to sue for damages if prominent creations are mutilated or destroyed—even if those artworks are owned by someone else. A Harvard Law School guide on the statute explains that the legal remedies available for moral-rights violations include $500 to $20,000 in damages per artwork.