5Pointz’s artists have been working at a Williamsburg lumber yard in the year since its Long Island City location was torn down. All photos by Robert Tutton
Nearly a year after the masterfully spray-painted walls of 5Pointz were torn down to make room for a pair of luxury high-rises—towers that could, somewhat unbelievably, bear the name of the fallen graffiti mecca—its familiar logo can be seen emblazoned above a Williamsburg lumber yard. From a massive tangle of gray and pink snakes abutting the Newtown Creek to a fiery Easter Island landscape, and of course the labyrinthine-lettered tags, the pieces adorning the outer gates and main building of M. Fine Lumber and Brooklyn Reclaimed, which crafts furniture from recycled wood, are as vivid and impressive as ever. For 5Pointz supporters and fans of street art generally, it’s a welcome sight, sort of like an aerosol monument to artistic resilience.
[The old 5Pointz in Long Island City]
But according to Jonathan Cohen, also known as Meres One, who curated the walls of 5Pointz for more than a decade, this isn’t exactly a rebirth. “I don’t want it to be confused with a new 5Pointz; it’s not,” he said. “There never will be another 5Pointz.” Before it was 5Pointz, the Long Island City factory where artists came to paint was known as Phun Phactory; when that closed, Cohen reached out to Jerry Wolkoff, the building’s owner (whose policy on the graffiti was rather lax), about picking up the mantle. He used to spend every day at the old building, giving tours and eventually turning the nearly 100-year-old factory into a beloved art space and improbable tourist attraction. “Obviously there’s nowhere near the same wall space here,” he said recently on a sweltering day at the lumber yard. “And I don’t really have the energy to dedicate being here every day like I used to.”
He was also quick to clarify that the artists who made 5Pointz was it was had been keeping busy since the demolition, hosting various “pop-up” events around the city. In April, Cohen and fellow artists Jerms, Lexi Bella and several others painted murals along the halls of August Martin High School in Jamaica, Queens. “It was to help the kids be inspired to want to go to school and better their grades, and now it’s up to them to do their part,” Meres says. They also held a show at Brooklyn Reclaimed where reclaimed wood served as canvases, and a block party fund raiser in Long Island City to benefit the YMCA, which featured live music and an art battle.
While 5Pointz may have never truly died, you can’t shake the faint glimmer that the new works in Brooklyn are somehow rising from the ashes. Even with places like the Bushwick Collective or Welling Court, the reality is that spaces for graffiti artists to paint legally are in short supply. “It will be very clear in 10–15 years how horrible [the destruction of 5Pointz] was, because the art form gains acceptance every year,” notes Cohen. “It’s the most relevant art form of our time. Whether people understand it or not, or want to consider it art—it is—it’s a cultural movement. The destruction of that is no different, to me, than destroying the White House or Penn Station. It’s a part of New York.”
Others who used to paint at 5Pointz agree. “That building can never be replaced,” said Kenji Takabayashi, a graffiti artist and muralist who painted those walls for years and recently contributed to the massive Easter Island piece on Brooklyn Reclaimed’s outer gates. “You could see some super-professional guys from Germany painting and then an 11-year-old kid from Long Island just starting out.” Takabayashi is also one of the hundreds of artists who woke to find his work blotted out by sloppy patches of white paint in November 2013, and one of the nine artists currently suing Wolkoff for destruction of their work. Some of the other participants in the lawsuit include Maria “TOOFLY” Castillo, Rodney “PANIC” Rodriguez, James “Jimmy C” Cochran and Richard “Patch Whiskey” Miller.
The unceremonious end was shocking, but also a reminder of 5Pointz’s reality: that as big as the idea grew, it was always subject to the whim of the building’s owners. “At any time we could have said, Enough with the graffiti, we want to just paint the walls white,” David Wolkoff, Jerry’s son, told me back in 2012. The developers drew attention to the fact they never had to allow the painting in the first place. The problem, it seems, is that 5Pointz grew into something much larger and more meaningful than the Wolkoffs expected. “The only reason I [painted the building white] was because I heard they were going to chain themselves hand to hand,” Jerry Wolkoff said recently. “They had painted on my building, some of them for years; the last thing I want them to do was to get arrested.” But to many of its supporters, it looked like 5Pointz got simply gotten kicked when it was down. “There’s nothing he could have done that would have been more damaging to the artists who painted the murals,” said Cohen. Hence the lawsuit, which rests on the Visual Artists Rights Act. VARA grants artists the right to “prevent any intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification” of their work and “prevent any destruction of a work of recognized stature.” In recent years, Los Angeles muralist Kent Twitchell used VARA to attain a $1.1 million settlement when his famous six-story Ed Ruscha monument was painted over in 2006.
The artists also claim that VARA grants them 90 days to save or otherwise protect their work at their own expense. Kenji Takabayashi says that his piece in particular—a 95-foot-wide mural of Van Gogh’s Starry Night—could have been saved. “We worked on part of the wall that wasn’t actually brick. We worked on wood siding,” Takabayashi said. “Had we had the opportunity and we knew it was coming, we could have salvaged many of the works.”
“They knew I was taking the building down, why didn’t they take it off then?,” Wolkoff counters. “The type of art we’re speaking about now was a blink—stay there a month, two months. Some stayed longer but basically 99 percent was a blink. That’s the nature of this kind of work generally speaking.” The Wolkoffs have maintained that once the new towers, they will have walls available for artists. In spite of the shortage of legal wall space, the question remains who will actually use them. Takabayashi likened it to the 1994 baseball strike. “No one that I know is going to do that,” he said. “I would have no respect for someone who would go and paint at the new building, and I’m pretty sure every other graffiti writer I know would have the same stance.”
Though of a much smaller scale, the existence of the lumber yard suggests that 5Pointz is not a place or a building, but an idea—a notion the developers do not share. “My building was 5Pointz,” Wolkoff said. “The artists that came to it, did their aerosol on the building 5Pointz.” In terms of the art, however, it is certainly better than nothing. Everyday, Cohen says, he still receives emails from people unaware of the demolition, artists looking to paint, or fans seeking tours. And when Cohen says he lacks the energy to do it all again, it reads more like reluctance—a simple and justifiable hesitancy to devote yourself to something so fully only to have your heartbroken. “When I would be at 5Pointz, standing in the loading dock, and I would see someone come for the first time, it was bananas,” Meres said. “You could tell a person that’s never been there before because their mouth would drop. That won’t be duplicated.”
· All 5Pointz Coverage [Curbed] · Curbed Features archive [Curbed]