DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN — A graffiti artist from the former Long Island City street art mecca 5Pointz who testified in federal court Wednesday said he could have earned tens of thousands of dollars for a piece he painted at the site if he had been given warning the property would be whitewashed.
The testimony came during the second day of a trial in which 21 artists are suing landlord G&M Realty under the Visual Artists Rights Acts (VARA) for abruptly painting over their work in 2013. The federal law offers protection for certain works of visual art of a "recognized stature," though the buildings' owners have argued that the murals at 5Pointz were never intended to be permanent.
On Wednesday, two artists whose pieces were painted over at the now-demolished properties took the stand to answer questions about their careers, the value of the works in question and how the losses impacted them.
"I was extremely upset about it," said artist Kenji Takabayashi, known by the tag name "Python," whose large mural — a rendition of Vincent Van Gogh's "Starry Night" — was among those covered up.
A piece of similar size and scale as that one could earn him between $40,000 to $60,000, he told jurors.
He said he would have attempted to remove the piece, which was painted on wooden slats on the side of one building, if he'd known it was going to get whitewashed.
"I wasn't given any notice," Takabayashi said, saying he used to bring potential clients to 5Pointz to see the mural in person as an example of his style. "There was business that I probably lost because of the fact that the artwork was eliminated."
But when questioning the artist, attorney David Ebert, who is representing G&M Realty owner Jerry Wolkoff, pointed out the temporary nature of the art at 5Pointz.
"Other artists certainly covered over your work and you covered over other artists' work, is that correct?" he asked, also taking aim at Takabayashi's estimated price tag for his ruined piece, which he said was significantly higher than any works the artist has actually sold to date.
The lawyer also countered that Takabayashi knew the the graffiti-covered buildings were eventually going to be demolished, but still never made any effort to preserve his mural.
"No one said the piece was going to last forever, correct?" Ebert asked, later asking the artist if he gives Wolkoff "any credit at all" for his career success.
"I have to, because he allowed me to paint," Takabayashi acknowledged.
The trial comes after years of conflict between Wolkoff's G&M Realty and the artists who painted there for years with the landlords' permission, turning the site into a colorful tourist attraction.
In 2013, the building owners moved forward with plans to build two luxury apartment buildings at the site and demolish the mural-covered warehouses on Jackson Avenue and Davis Street, a move the artists unsuccessfully sued to block at the time.
The building's owners painted over the street at the building in 2013. (Credit: DNAinfo/Jeanmarie Evelly)
Months before the buildings were torn down, the Wolkoffs whitewashed the artists' work in the middle of the night, a move 5Pointz founder Jonathan Cohen called "the greatest art murder in history."
Carlo Nieva, whose three-story-high mural of King Kong at 5Pointz was among those painted over, also testified Wednesday. He said the piece was an important one for his street-art career, which had taken a backseat for a few years after he became a parent.
"This wall was something of a coming-out mural for me," he said, adding he was "distraught" when he learned that the piece had been painted over.
During his testimony, Nieva discussed how 5Pointz helped turn its former Long Island City location from a row of derelict buildings into a renowned outdoor gallery space.
"It really became known as an arts community, some place the young and cool could congregate," he said.
Wolkoff said the two luxury apartment towers rising at the site will include space for street art and will bear the 5Pointz name.
But Nieva testified that while he knew in 2013 that the owners wanted to tear down the buildings, he didn't think it would actually happen and he expected the site would get landmarked before the wrecking ball came.
"I thought that Jerry would see the value of our work and allow us to stay," he said. "I honestly believed this."
More artists are expected to testify Thursday.