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Condo Fought to Protect Commissioned Graffiti

BROOKLYN (CN) - Developers trying to make way for luxury apartments in Long Island City face a legal challenge from artists who spray-painted the walls of the group of buildings known as 5Pointz.

Lead plaintiff Jonathan Cohen, who tags under the name Meres One, says the buildings' owner, Gerald Wolkoff, allowed "aerosol artists" to use the interior and exterior walls of the property since 1993 to create works of art. Cohen took over as the volunteer curator and manager of the aerosol art program.

Wolkoff gave Cohen "full authority" to determine what could be painted there, and even gave Cohen keys and space to store spray paint, ladders and other supplies for Cohen and other artists.

Cohen says Wolkoff directed him to have works painted on every 5Pointz building, with three restrictions: avoiding political, religious or pornographic messages.

The buildings allegedly became the world's "Graffiti Mecca," a well-publicized and well-visited tourist destination featuring 350 works of art by hand-selected, pre-approved and established "aerosol artists." Hundreds of tourists from around the world visit the landmark every week, the lawsuit says.

With the property now facing the wrecking ball to make way for a 1,000-unit luxury apartment complex, the artists say they have no choice but to exercise copyright ownership over their works.

In their lawsuit, they seek to elevate the perception of their art from just simply graffiti to legitimate "works of visual art" in need of protection from demolition.

"Because of its stature in the international art community and its high visibility, having a work of visual art accepted and displayed on 5Pointz adds considerable prestige to an artist's reputation," the artists say. "For aspiring aerosol artists, having a work of visual art accepted and displayed on 5Pointz is guaranteed to raise their profile and enhance their credibility in the art world.

Cohen says he has since applied for copyright registration for several of his paintings, and that removing them from 5Pointz would cause their "destruction, distortion, mutilation or modification."

The artists say demolishing their work would cause irreparable harm. "Plaintiffs' honor and reputation as artists will be damaged if defendants act on their stated intentions to raze 5Pointz," the complaint states.

It adds that "each of the plaintiffs has the right to prevent such destruction, distortion, mutilation or modification of his or her works of visual art for a term consisting of the duration of his or her life."

The defendants - G&M Realty; 22-50 Jackson Avenue Owners; 22-52 Jackson Avenue; ACD Citiview Building; and Wolkoff - have also disconnected fire equipment and failed to maintain sprinkler control valves, the lawsuit states. They also allegedly started disconnecting gas heaters without first getting necessary permits, thus increasing the "likelihood of a catastrophic fire" that would destroy the paintings.

They did not return a request for comment.

Plaintiffs are: Cohen; Sandra Fabara aka Lady Pink; Stephen Ebert aka Bishop 203; Luis Lamboy aka Lamboy; Esteban Del Valle aka Del Valle; Rodrigo Henter de Rezende aka AK47; Danielle Mastrion aka Mastrion; William Tramontozzi Jr. aka Tramontozzi; Thomas Lucero aka Lucero; Akiko Miyakami aka Shiro; Christian Cortes aka Cortes; Dustin Spagnola aka Spagnola; Alice Mizrachi aka Mizrachi; Carlos Game aka Game; James Rocco aka Rocco; Steven Lew aka Lew; Francisco Fernandez aka Fernandez.

They seek an injunction barring defendants from destroying their art.

The artists are represented by Roland Acevedo with Scopetta Steif Kretz & Abercrombie, and Jeannine Chanes.

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