NEW YORK (AFP) - In a landmark ruling that graffiti art should be protected by US federal law, a New York judge has awarded US$6.75 million in damages to 21 artists whose work was whitewashed by a developer in 2013.
In a written decision filed Monday, Judge Frederic Block awarded the maximum possible amount of statutory damages, US$150,000 for each of 45 works obliterated at the 5Pointz site in Queens.
For 20 years developer Jerry Wolkoff had invited taggers to showcase their art on his industrial complex, turning it into - in the words of the artists' lawyer - the "world's largest outdoor open aerosol museum."
But in 2013 he whitewashed the art before demolishing the site in 2014, making way for a planned US$400 million luxury residential complex.
The 21 artists from 5Pointz sued for damages, saying they should have been given the opportunity to salvage their work before the wrecking ball destroyed what had become an internationally acclaimed and thriving tourist attraction.
They went to trial under the Visual Artists Rights Act that says any artwork should be protected, provided it is of recognised stature.
The jury in Brooklyn found last November that the developer broke the law, but their decision was non-binding, leaving Block to make the final ruling. In doing so, he raised from 36 to 45 the number of works of art he deemed of sufficient stature to qualify for damages.
"If not for Wolkoff's insolence, these damages would not have been assessed. If he did not destroy 5Pointz until he received his permits and demolished it 10 months later, the court would not have found that he had acted willfully," the judge wrote.
"The shame of it all is that since 5Pointz was a prominent tourist attraction the public would undoubtedly have thronged to say its goodbyes during those 10 months and gaze at the formidable works of aerosol art for the last time.
"It would have been a wonderful tribute for the artists that they richly deserved," he added.
Eric Baum, lawyer for the artists, welcomed the decision.
"The decision is a clear indication that aerosol art is in the same category as any other fine art, equally worthy of the protection of federal law," he told AFP.
"Their art should be cherished and not destroyed," he added.
Wolkoff's lawyer did not immediately respond to a request to comment.