Now you can't paint over graffiti on your own building

If you need to make a couple million dollars and are willing to wait for a while, there’s a new way to do it. First you go buy some cans of spray paint. Then you get a ladder and go tag somebody’s building in New York City. After a while, the owner will probably try to paint over it or, in some neighborhoods, tear the building down for new development. When either of those happens, you take the owner to court claiming that it was art. Finally, the judge awards you the cash.

That should have been the plot of a National Lampoon movie. Unfortunately, we’re talking about New York here, so it’s a real story. (LA Times)

A judge awarded $6.7 million Monday to graffiti artists who sued after dozens of spray-paintings were destroyed on the walls of dilapidated New York warehouse buildings torn down to make room for high-rise luxury residences.

U.S. District Judge Frederic Block in Brooklyn said 45 of the 49 paintings were recognized works of art “wrongfully and willfully destroyed” by a remorseless landlord.

Twenty-one aerosol artists had sued the owner of a Long Island City site known as 5Pointz under the Visual Rights Act, a 1990 federal law that protects artists’ rights even if someone else owns the physical artwork. Their graffiti was painted over in 2013, and the buildings were torn down a year later.

So this wasn’t actually your average tagging, with obscenities and crude representations of genitalia. I’ll even go so far as to say some of it was… “good?” You might be more generous and agree with the person who described it as the, “world’s largest collection of quality outdoor aerosol art.”

But that’s not the point. The building didn’t belong to the people who tagged it. And the person who did own the potentially valuable chunk of Big Apple real estate had plans to develop it. First he painted it over and then he tore it down. Because it was his building. And now a judge wants him to pay nearly seven million dollars to the people who, by any general definition, vandalized it.

Surely this is going to be up for appeal, right? Property laws are among some of the oldest in our legal code. They are woven into the fundamental definition of capitalism. There may be local regulations about how and where you can build or certain community standards about the structure’s appearance. But if someone puts “art” on the outside of your building you are stuck with it forever? What if there was an earthquake and the building fell down?

If this judgment stands it’s going to be one more chunk chipped out of the wall of sanity in this country.

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Duane Patterson 2:01 PM on June 05, 2023