Night Falls, and 5Pointz, a Graffiti Mecca, Is Whited Out in Queens

Some artists called it a mass desecration, but the buildings’ owner, Jerry Wolkoff, said he would erect a wall where painters could work again.

Graffiti is often denounced as vandalism, but the deliriously festooned, sprawling warehouses at the western edge of Queens rose far above that. Blanketed with giddy images, drawing street artists from around the world, 5Pointz was a decades-old legal haven considered both a “United Nations of Graffiti” and a semi-rebellious statement in a city some feel is growing too antiseptic. “Save 5Pointz,” the infamous British street artist Banksy urged in his final message to New Yorkers, after he wrapped his monthlong spree clandestinely decorating the city’s streets in October. 

But early Tuesday, under the cover of night, painters quietly blanketed much of the walls of 5Pointz with whitewash, erasing the work of hundreds and seemingly putting the final nail in the long battle between the building’s owners, who plan to erect luxury apartments, and the artists who fought to save it. 

“This is the biggest rag and disrespect in the history of graffiti,” said a teary-eyed Marie Cecile Flaguel, a spokeswoman for the group behind 5Pointz, which sprang like a rainbow from the gray sidewalks near Jackson Avenue in Long Island City. “He’s painted over the work of at least 1,500 artists.” 

The owner of the buildings, Jerry Wolkoff, however, said painting over the artwork was the humane thing to do. A recent order by a federal judge allows him to move forward with his plans to demolish the buildings by year’s end, and, he said, watching the art-covered walls be pulled down piece by piece would be “torture.” 

He also wanted to avoid a confrontation, adding that there would be a 60-foot-high wall near the new towers where graffiti painters can work again. 

“I am telling you, I did not like what they did — I loved what they did,” said Mr. Wolkoff, who bought the buildings in 1971 and plans to build high-rise towers in their stead. “I cried this morning, I swear to you.”  

Yet many supporters of 5Pointz, which became so well established that tourists flocked to it by the busload, saw the clandestine erasing as a cruel, vindictive move. 

“The fact that they destroyed the art before they razed the building, it’s a really big slap in the face,” said Eric Felisbret, an expert on street art and the author of “Graffiti New York.” “So many people put so much passion and energy into it.”  

Though there are other spots in New York City where graffiti artists could legally work, Mr. Felisbret said, “There’s nothing that was as large and that big of a draw internationally” as 5Pointz.  

Forty years ago, after buying the buildings, which were mostly abandoned at the time, Mr. Wolkoff leased the space to a company that made record player accessories, then eight-track tapes and then CD covers before moving out in the early 1990s.  

Casting about for new tenants, Mr. Wolkoff rented studios to artists for a few hundred dollars a month. Around that time he was also approached by a man who removed graffiti from buildings around the city, and wanted to know if the painters could use Mr. Wolkoff’s walls as canvases. Liking their work, Mr. Wolkoff gave them more and more space. In 2002, a graffiti artist named Meres One took the endeavor over, becoming its curator and christening it 5Pointz. 

Five stories high, the buildings occupied most of a city block, a playful, wacky visual counterpoint to the solemn low-slung MoMA PS 1 site across the street. The canary yellow walls were covered with constantly changing artwork — Brobdingnagian bubble letters, colorful cartoons and meticulously wrought images created by painters from France, Italy, Japan and beyond. Stepping into 5Pointz’s interior courtyard was like plunging into a lurid fever dream. 

Though street art is meant to be temporary, 5Pointz became known as a graffiti museum. And the medium itself, once considered a symbol of urban unraveling, became a sought after gallery-worthy commodity, with work from street artists like Banksy commanding millions of dollars. Which is one of the reasons the whitewashing of 5Pointz’s walls was greeted with such vociferous dismay. “What?! What did they do?!” cried a tour guide named Hans Von Rittern, as he raced out of a tour bus early Tuesday, his arms wide, his face crumpling as soon as he caught sight of Ms. Flaguel. They embraced tightly and wept.  

Mr. Von Rittern regularly brought busloads of Europeans to the site, which he considered the crowning glory of his tour of boroughs outside Manhattan. “I don’t understand. How can you erase 12 years of history?” he said. “It’s cruel.”  

But Mr. Wolkoff said that graffiti was ephemeral, and that there would be plenty of space for artists’ work around his new buildings. He decided to erect high-rise towers after the real estate market began heating up — Long Island City has sprouted many new residential towers with glass and steel replacing the brick and mortar that once dominated the working-class neighborhood. The 5Pointz artists and supporters had been scrambling to get landmark status, but were turned down by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in August because the buildings lacked architectural distinction and the artwork was less than 30 years old. In October, the City Council approved Mr. Wolkoff’s plan, and this month a federal judge ruled against the 5Pointz group, saying that he could not stop the buildings’ demolition.  

Mr. Wolkoff said he decided that painting over the art at night without fanfare or notice was the kindest way to end an era. He estimated that demolition would take three to four months and would be agonizing to watch if the artwork remained, and also said he wanted to avoid trouble. “I had nothing but admiration” for the artists, he said. “The last thing I want is for any of them to get arrested.”  

But in quarters near and far, 5Pointz’s artists and admirers reeled in shock. They gathered in the chill of Tuesday morning, quiet and dismayed, and planned a candlelight vigil for the evening.  

One street artist, who would give his name only as Just, had at least two works painted over. He spent hours early Tuesday gazing at the whitewashed buildings, leaning against a red-brick wall across the street. Then he bought himself a tall glass of beer, which he sipped slowly from a brown paper bag.  

“Heartbreaking,” he said. “This is not just about graffiti — it’s about the unity of people who met here from all over the world.” He paused and took a drink. “That’s what really hurts

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