5 Pointz Aerosol Art Center, Inc. is a 200,000 square foot factory building occupying a whole block in Long Island City, the southwesternmost district of the borough of Queens, in New York City. Since 1993 the building’s owner has allowed the building to be used as a fully legal venue for urban graffiti artists from around the world to showcase their artistry.
Curator Jonathan Cohen, also known as the artist Meres One, selects artists, who must submit work samples and designs to get permission to paint at 5 Pointz. The building is regularly renewed with new murals replacing those that have had a good run.
The center is well known to anyone who rides the 7 train, whose elevated tracks pass right by 5 pointz. It’s directly across Jackson Avenue from PS1, MoMA’s satellite museum devoted to contemporary art, and many visitors to that august institution also visit 5 Pointz to see a kind of contemporary art that springs from the streets rather than the academies. If you’ve never heard of 5 Pointz, perhaps you’ve seen it in music videos by Kurtis Blow, Doug E. Fresh, Joss Stone, or Joan Jett.
Jerry Wolkoff, the long-time owner of the building, has made it available as a painting space for artists over the past twenty years (Back in the ’90’s it was called Phun Factory). The idea was to discourage graffiti vandalism by offering spray paint artists a legal place to exhibit their work. Particularly since Jonathan Cohen’s curatorship began about eleven years ago, the place has become one of New York’s cultural landmarks, a destination for practitioners and appreciators of street art from all over the world.
Jerry Wolkoff’s son, David Wolkoff, is a developer. He wants to tear down 5 Pointz to build two luxury high-rise condo towers. Manhattan and the parts of Brooklyn and Queens that are close to Manhattan are already glutted with fancy condos for the ultra-rich. Many of the most expensive apartments are not even used as residences, just held as investments by people who have a lot of excess money they need to park. New York, along with London and other international cities, has been subjected to massive development of this kind in recent years. It’s made it more difficult for artists and other middle class and working class people to live in the city, but money rules over all.
Long Island City is one of those parts of New York that’s a short train ride to Midtown Manhattan but still has a lot of old, decrepit industrial buildings and warehouses, so it’s a natural spot for development. On the blocks around 5 Pointz you’ll see wholesalers and taxi dispatchers and sidewalk food cart garages, but gourmet restaurants and designer boutiques are nearby, and the blue glass Citicorp Tower looms above the art center.
The City Council voted unanimously to allow the bulldozing of 5 Pointz. The developers agreed to feature some aerosol artworks on the facade at the base of the new building, to “preserve the heritage and legacy” of 5 Pointz. It is hard for me to imagine, though, that the managers of a luxury condo building will allow the kind of freewheeling spirit of creative anarchy that the old 5 Pointz has embodied.
I think destroying 5 Pointz is a crime and a disgrace. It was almost exactly fifty years ago that developers were allowed to raze the old Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan, a true temple of transit and one of the great architectural masterpieces of McKim, Mead & White, to build the uninspired arena of Madison Square Garden with today’s depressing Penn Station in the basement. It was a true act of vandalism that shocked the aesthetic conscience of the city and led to the rise of the historic preservation movement.
5 Pointz is no masterpiece of architecture like the old Penn Station, and the art on its walls is not all of transcendent quality, but neither is all the art on the walls inside PS1 or other centers for contemporary art. These institutions are valuable because they are vital laboratories of creative ferment, filled with many clashing varieties of contemporary art, not yet culled by time, the ultimate curator. We go to be wowed by some works, bored by others, and angered by others.
A lot of the contemporary art in PS1 is abstruse and condescending, or crudely and pointlessly transgressive, or gimmicky and commercial, but there’s a great variety and it can be a very exciting museum to visit. I’ve often thought of 5 Pointz as PS1’s outdoor annex, offering work that is grand in scale, with vivid colors given their fullest expression in the bright light of day.
The City Council would surely never approve the destruction of an established museum such as PS1, with wealthy donors and corporate sponsors and a respectable board of trustees. 5 Pointz, though, has none of those recognized signifiers of legitimacy.
Currently the most famous “street artist” in the world, that master of self-promotion Banksy, is in New York, sending his fans on a sort of treasure hunt to find the new pieces of work he’s installing around the city at regular intervals.
Mayor Bloomberg criticized Banksy, saying “Art is art, and nobody’s a bigger supporter of the arts than I am. I just think there are some places for art and there are some places [not for] art. And you running up to somebody’s property or public property and defacing it is not my definition of art.” And indeed, Banksy is painting graffiti on property he doesn’t own, without permission, but of course he gets away with it because he’s a celebrity and an international art star who also sells work in galleries for serious prices.
The artists of 5 Pointz are nearly anonymous. It took me quite a bit of digging to identify the names of the artists who did the pieces pictured in this post, and still I couldn’t find some of them, and may have made some mistakes. If anyone who is knowledgeable can correct or amend my picture captions, I’d truly appreciate it.
Some of these artists have surely engaged in illegal tagging elsewhere, but all the work at 5 Pointz is completely legal.
I took all the photos in this post last weekend, and if you can visit 5 Pointz soon you can see the originals. Most of the murals are eight or ten feet tall, and these small photos don’t really do them justice.
You’ll notice the great variety of styles and themes, abstraction and figuration, whimsy and seriousness, pop cultural and art historical references. There is a lot of the wildstyle lettering that came out of the New York school of graffiti art of the original hip hop era, and traditional lowbrow motifs like skulls and monsters, but there are also realistic portraits and some truly sophisticated painting techniques.
The city will do nothing to stop the celebrity Banksy’s illegal work, but they will sanction the razing of the outsider artists’ legal work at 5 Pointz. They’ll protect the gallery-anointed contemporary art at PS1 but not the street-culture contemporary art at 5 Pointz. It’s hard not to see this as an example of a class-based double standard.
To be fair to the Wolkoffs, they do own the building, and we can be grateful to them for having made it available as a place for the creation and exhibition of artwork over the past two decades. But I find it disappointing that someone who owns such a collection of art would decide to destroy it to put up more luxury condos in New York. Surely there are other options available to billionaire developers.
Click on the link and look at the principles of the Visual Artists Rights Act. No one would question the application of this law if someone who owned a recognized masterpiece like Picasso’s Guernica announced plans to destroy it. The court will need to determine whether works by little-known artists, not acclaimed by the curators of major institutions, and in a genre associated with criminal vandalism, deserve the same moral rights as the Picasso.
Fine art by recognized masters has been destroyed by its owners in the past. A famous case is Nelson Rockefeller’s destruction of “Man at the Crossroads”, Diego Rivera’s commissioned fresco at Rockefeller Center, which was interpreted as anti-capitalist propaganda.
The boundaries of art that is recognized as such by the arbiters of culture are subject to change over time. Not long ago, the common attitude among serious art curators would have been to dismiss popular artists such as Norman Rockwell and R. Crumb as “mere illustrators”, not fine artists, but that is beginning to change. A little further back, the art authorities in France dismissed the impressionist painters as crude daubers, not worthy to be considered in the same league as their favorites, painters we now see as stodgy academic bores.
I suspect the work of some of these street artists will some day be seen as important work – not all of it, but some of it. For now, these artists are clearly underdogs, Davids confronting Goliaths of great wealth.
Recent decades in New York have seen a significant loss of the city’s diverse cultural manifestations – not just street art but funky mom-and-pop businesses, community gardens, eccentric neighborhoods and vibrant local artistic scenes – to make way for generic apartment towers and homogenized franchise businesses. A recent editorial by Talking Heads frontman David Byrne expresses feelings I hear often expressed among New York’s creatives. Will history see rampant commercial development as a greater act of vandalism than graffiti tagging?
If 5 Pointz is razed, the center of gravity for street art in NYC is likely to shift to the Bushwick Collective, an area around the intersection of Troutman Street and St. Nicholas Avenue in Brooklyn where curator Joseph Ficalora has invited street artists to create elaborate works on the many blank industrial walls. It doesn’t have the high-profile location or the single massive building of 5 Pointz, but it’s already become a destination for the practitioners of aerosol art and their appreciators.
I think street art is a vital and important part of the visual arts culture of our time. Let’s not dismiss this work based on class prejudice.
Update added November 19, 2013: Last night, under cover of darkness, crews working on behalf of the developers smeared over all of 5 Pointz’ murals with white paint. The “Graffiti Mecca” is no more.
My friend Steven Speliotis memorialized the whitewashing in this video: