Street Art Lovers, Relax: It’s Time to Let Go of 5 Pointz

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You might be crying about 5 Pointz, the most prominent center for graffiti in New York, which owner David Wolkoff intends to demolish before the end of the year. I’m not, because I’m not a crier.

In fact, reasonable people might actually feel pretty sorry for Wolkoff, who could have done more to hedge against the avalanche of bad PR he has suffered for the past 12 months. On one hand, when he began allowing a warehouse he owned in Long Island City to be used as an immense canvas for sanctioned street artists, Wolkoff knew that the commissioned “aerosol art” would attract attention, and over the years, people would start to get attached to the building. That’s common sense.

Jonathan Cohen, aka Meres, in front of the 5Pointz building in Long Island City.

What Wolkoff couldn’t have anticipated was the intensity those attachments would eventually take, and the extent to which his decision to demolish 5 Pointz would court caricatures of class conflict in New York. If you’re distressed by the effects of gentrification, and if you care about street artists having a space to make ambitious work without worrying about prosecution, then 5 Pointz’s destruction is upsetting, and the obvious reaction is to demonize Wolkoff. As a non-neighborhood resident who lives with his wife in a “super luxe” apartment on the Upper East Side, it’s easy to blame him for destroying a local treasure and replacing it with some bland-looking market-rate towers. Jesus, isn’t this, like, the exact plot of Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo? Never mind the fact that Wolkoff offered his own property to street art advocacy groups like Phun Factory and 5 Pointz for well over a decade.

At a Community Board 2 meeting a few weeks ago, locals sounded utterly unconvinced by Wolkoff’s plans to set aside outdoor space for public murals — little of which is visible from the sketches currently available online. Although they seemed to accept the idea that the building would eventually be razed, they took some pleasure in publicly opining that he was “full of shit.” You’d almost forget he was talking about his own property. The general agreement, among almost everyone else in the room, was that he was not, and that 5 Pointz belongs to everyone who gets to see it.

Just as it would be a mistake to say that Wolkoff is preoccupied only with money, it also seems unfair to say that 5Pointz’s caretakers only care about art. Jonathan Cohen, an artist and chief guardian of 5Pointz who also calls himself “Meres” or “Meres One,” is hardly hostile to the art of making money. In fact, he sells his work to commercial interests all the time. Marie Flageul, a “lead volunteer and troublemaker” of Cohen’s at 5 Pointz, has introduced him to numerous friends in the advertising world, and says he could easily earn a living on that alone.

“Half of Meres will die when he loses 5 Pointz,” Flageul said of Cohen, but he may be ready to move on. For the past decade, managing the space has taken up an exasperating amount of time and effort. In the likely event that the building is demolished, he looks forward to pursuing gallery exhibitions full-time. “I’m tired,” he told me on Saturday, adding an observation I wouldn’t expect from someone who oversees a set of murals that change every month: “I want stability. I’m not going to sit here and cry or mourn.”

In other words, he’ll survive. The art-viewing public will soon be missing out on a tremendous source of free art, but 5 Pointz isn’t the only place in New York where people can see street art done right. Think of Bushwick or the South Bronx. I don’t look forward to the day 5 Pointz is actually torn down — the image of a wrecking ball going through one of those walls would make anyone cringe — but my suspicion is that we’ll survive, too.