THREE heavyset guys armed with aerosol canisters have their boombox tuned to a ribald talk-radio show as they transform a grungy section of wall in Long Island City, Queens, from a peeling mess to a psychedelic swirl of letters spelling out their names. The opposite of furtive, these tattooed artisans laugh as they brandish spraypaint cans for an audience of curious passers-by. Tagging may be illegal in New York, but not on this extraordinarily colorful industrial block beneath the shriek of the No. 7 subway line.
Farther along the street, a transit-themed mural includes a tongue-in-cheek four-star rating credited to Councilman Peter F. Vallone Jr., one of the city’s most vocal critics of graffiti — or, as it is described by fans and practitioners, aerosol art. To them, this desolate site known as 5Pointz Arts Center is a mecca for graffiti artists, rappers and break-dancers from the five boroughs and beyond. Icons of the medium like Cope 2, Tats Cru and Tracy 168 have painted here, and musicians as diverse as Joss Stone and Jadakiss have shot videos using its garish walls as backdrop.
“These walls to me are no different than a canvas in a museum,” said Jonathan Cohen, 38, an artist from Flushing. He is the primary guardian here, and the source of the billboard-size words painted on the main wall, “5Pointz: The Institute of Higher Burnin’.” That his piercing eyes are worried and his dark hair infiltrated with gray is directly linked to recent statements by the building’s owner that 5Pointz is living on borrowed time — destined to be replaced by two residential towers.
Since 2001, Mr. Cohen, whose nom de graffiti is meresone, has performed the role of on-premises curator, peacemaker and, in his vision, museum director. Permission to use the outside of the dilapidated warehouse, at 45-46 Davis Street, as a canvas was granted by the owner, Jerry Wolkoff, who also rented out makeshift art studio space until 2009, when a fire escape collapsed and seriously injured a jewelry artist. After the accident, the interior studios were dismantled and Mr. Wolkoff paid a fine for safety infractions, but the graffiti, monitored by Mr. Cohen, was allowed to continue, gratis.
Painters from France, Australia, Spain and elsewhere have been invited to make their mark on what some members of the urban arts frontier laud as an endangered landmark. The site is noted in foreign guidebooks as the hippest tourist attraction in Queens, an out-of-doors paean to street art. It is a headline attraction for Bike the Big Apple tours. But it lacks any mention on the local community board’s list of cultural destinations, unlike the Museum of Modern Art’s nearby PS1 outpost, which invited 5Pointz to perform at its summer arts series on Sunday, before Hurricane Irene forced a postponement. The taggers were to demonstrate their art on canvases, not on MoMA’s walls.
At 5Pointz, a graffiti lovefest is celebrated daily in broad daylight and includes the prime display space up on the roof, where passing subway riders are treated to — or assaulted by — a striking portrait of the murdered rapper Notorious B.I.G. as interpreted by the New Zealand artist OD. Even the chairman of Community Board 2, Joe Conley, considers the mural “a magnificent example of creativity — it looks like a real painting.”
On the flip side, he dismisses the building it is painted on as “a blight.”
“People refer to it as ‘that graffiti building,’ not ‘that arts center,’ ” he said. “It by and large has a negative connotation.”
Mr. Conley and his board agree with the building’s hitherto arts-friendly owner and developer, Mr. Wolkoff, that the moldering complex is ripe for razing in the name of urban development. Mr. Wolkoff envisions two 30-story apartment towers, and pledges to include affordable loft space for working artists. He also promises a rear wall accessible to graffiti artists.
“A rear wall? That won’t cut it,” objected Marie Flageul, an event planner who is part of a 10-person crew that acts as docents at 5Pointz. “It’s like David and Goliath. What the landlord doesn’t understand is that 5Pointz is a brand and an icon, and if he knocks it down it will be missed. 5Pointz is the United Nations of graffiti.”
What Mr. Wolkoff proposes is two million square feet of development in a spot that currently houses 200,000 square feet of deteriorating warehouse decorated by an ever-mutating collection (aerosol art is not forever) of 350 murals and tags applied by a revolving cast of about 1,000 artists each year. There is no chance, he said, that the new project will be christened “Graffiti Towers.” He’s not that sentimental.
“There is an evolution going on in that part of Long Island City; the building is old, it doesn’t warrant repairs, and no matter what, it has to come down,” Mr. Wolkoff, 74, said in a telephone interview from Long Island, where he and his son own two business parks and are attempting to develop the decaying Pilgrim State psychiatric center site in Brentwood.
“It’s time for me to put something else there,” he said of 5Pointz. “It’s a great location for young people and empty nesters who can’t afford Manhattan.” Mr. Wolkoff does not think the clatter of the No. 7 train will deter renters: “I can get you to 53rd and Fifth in 12 minutes!”
Supporters of this unlikely art temple are rallying to preserve it. An online petition called “Show Ur Love to 5Pointz” has accumulated more than 11,000 signatures and comments. The prevailing emotions: disbelief that the building will disappear and force graffiti artists back underground, and outrage that street art is again being censored.
On a recent Saturday, as Mr. Cohen was busily assigning another dozen spray-painters to several available sections of wall and roof, an assortment of fans and curiosity-seekers stopped by, some to gawk, others to pay their respects.
Jason Nickel, an art installer at PS1, brought his children, Lily, 12, and Jude, 8. “I heard the building might come down, and I was afraid the kids might not get to see it,” he said. “It’s a cultural landmark, actually.” Lily issued high praise. “It’s cool,” she said, twirling in front of a sinister mural by Christian Cortes.
Mr. Cortes, 38, abandoned his illegal spray-painting for a legal career in digital art in the mid-1990s, but after responding to an invitation from Mr. Cohen to visit 5Pointz and paint a wall, he found himself hooked again on creating graffiti tableaus.
“I got inspired as an old man to see what some of the young kids were doing here, carrying the flag for something that seemed to be disappearing,” Mr. Cortes said. “In other parts of the world, graffiti is accepted as an art form: here we are painting among Dumpsters on scraps of a building that’s going to be demolished, but because it’s legal, it feels like heaven. This is as good as it gets in New York.”
Don and Itta Ross, both 82, were in from Great Neck to scope out PS1 and 5Pointz. They found the graffiti “interesting.” They also lamented the lack of public art in New York City.
“New York is very backward in that respect,” Mr. Ross, a designer, said. “As long as this place isn’t hurting anybody, why not leave it alone? It’s a form of public art.”
A version of this article appeared in print on August 28, 2011, on page MB1 of the New York edition with the headline: Writing’s On the Wall (Art Is, Too,For Now)
Long Island City (NYC)
(Source: The New York Times)