Notes on 5Pointz: Feelings, Responses, and the Desire to “Save”

Just before 7PM on Tuesday November 19th (Abu Dhabi time), I glanced down at my phone to get my social networking “fix” before class. I scanned the latest tweets and status updates. And there it was:

Screen Shot 2013-11-22 at 9.22.23 AM
Rage. Disbelief. Shock. Sadness. I went through each “stage of mourning” in about 60 seconds. Trying to explain to my students why I was mumbling crazy things at my phone (but the rally was just a few days ago, why am I not in NYC?!, what about the landmark petition), I asked if they made it to 5Pointz during their semester “on the square” (this is what NYU Abu Dhabi-ers call NYU’s NYC campus). Some of them had, but none of them had the kind of visceral response I was having. After class, I had a lot of little red notifications to read through. My friends and colleagues had messaged links to articles, emailed blog posts, and tagged me in memes and photos. It took a while to get to sleep that night. I told  Facebook: “I’ve been trying to come up with something smart to say about 5Pointz being whitewashed, but really all I can do is be angry, swear, and cry a little. Clearly, I’ve got to do some real processing before I can blog about the larger cultural consequences of this spiteful, truly heinous, and ultimately unnecessarily hateful act.”

I spent the next day gutted and totally confused about why I was so deeply affected by the news. I was taking it personally; I’m still taking it personally. I keep asking myself why it bothers me so much. I’m not a graffiti writer. I wasn’t around for the court dates or protest (I participated by paying attention to the internet). The whitewashing of 5ptz doesn’t signal the end of graffiti art. And finally, despite all of the hard work Jonathon Meres Cohen and Marie Cecile Flaguel did to Save 5 Pointz, we know once the city council and the federal judge ruled against the preservation of the building that it would be destroyed. So, why the shock? And why am I waiting for news of some kind of massive retaliation? (Some kids tried to write on the memorial wall and were arrested for using markers on the poster boards attached to the building. Meres himself said, “People, do not write messages on 5 pointz ..undercovers are posted up waiting to arrest people.”) I mean, Wolkoff hired security for the building but NYC has many more walls. I kind of expected writers to cover the city in graff…but that didn’t happen, not yet anyway. So that’s another question: what’s up with that? Maybe I am missing something because I’m on the other side of the world, but it seems we’re all in a state of shock.

As the news stories and blog posts proliferated this week, I actively neglected this blog. I was trying to avoid the kind of rambling I am no doubt subjecting you to right now. Also, while I am positive that there is something “smart” to write about in regards to “saving”…it doesn’t exist here, not yet (and more than likely it will appear in my book’s chapter on how the internet is shifting cultural practices). I’m glad people are taking an interest in thinking through what’s happened, and the best I can do here is share some of my thoughts on what’s been written thus far.

1) While it is great fun to call the Wolkoff family evil, and for some actually cursing them for choosing money over culture, I think the issue is how art is valued and preserved in almost direct correlation to things like class and ethnicity when it comes to “improving” cities. Wolkoff and his family are just the latest figureheads representing the total whitewashing of NYC. I think at the end of the day Wolkoff is the scapegoat, but what people are really angry about is neoliberal capitalism. And if Wolkoff really did cry that morning, I’m curious why…and how he thinks about the value of art versus the value of condos. 

2) Gentrification is not inevitable. The relationship between art/culture, place, and the contemporary city was the topic of this year’s Creative Time Summit (definitely worth checking out). I for one refuse to throw up my hands and accept as “inevitable” that the people will continue to be disenfranchised, given no choice in how their cities are built.

3) 5 pointz was not deemed a “graffiti mecca” because writers thought they would gain subcultural fame, or street cred, by painting there. Writers from all over the world came to paint because it was a legal space in a city run by people who hate graffiti, and have been trying to eliminate it since its inception. The notion that “legal aerosol art” isn’t “real graffiti” misses the point of a genre that is now 40 years old; it also perpetuates a false binary, which proposes that if we have legal spaces “legit” writers will stop bombing. False. People have been writing on surfaces since we figured out dried clay leaves a mark; there is no danger that this will stop anytime soon. Thinking like this just helps the ant-graffiti heads, as we divide and conquer ourselves. We have to allow art forms to grow, change, and adapt, that’s what art does! Graffiti art takes so many different forms and lives on in so many different ways, all one has to do is look to the diaspora beyond NYC. Actually, all we have to do is look to the writers making a living selling their style to Louis Vuitton, Ugg, Calvin Klein, and Urban Outfitters (and so, so many more). And shouldn’t they be able to? Also, let’s take a moment and think about the mass exodus to Basel in December….lots of people scoffing at 5 pointz have no problem going down to Miami to paint with permission at an international arts festival in Wynwood. #realtalk #justsayin  For the record I LOVE Basel, I love writers getting paid for their work, and I firmly believe in graffiti’s diversity of forms. It’s all valid. It’s all expression. It all serves a different purpose.

4) Re: graffiti is ephemeral: When you get up somewhere without permission, yes you expect to get buffed by the property owner or by another writer—but that’s not what happened here. Wolkoff spent 20k in one night and hired non-union workers to cover over 1500 works with a thin coat of white paint that didn’t even match the color of the building (pet peeve). This is a different act entirely: these weren’t the marks of peeps who randomly caught tags, they were carefully curated works in a space dedicated to their preservation that were systemically and rather crudely obscured. It’s not something to brush off just because illegal graf plays with the boundaries of presence. Context is everything.

I emailed my people in the graf world and asked “how it makes writers/people in graf culture feel that 5 Pointz went out like this.” A few responses have trickled in:

Meme, Few & Far, CBS; USA
I cant recall the year but I was roughly 20 yrs. old, and such a toy, when I went to upstate NY to work with friends that got a good job gutting out houses. I had been there for 3 months and had to head back to California in a week. So I got on a bus to New York City by myself. Since I started writing graffiti seeing NYC was a goal of mine. NYC is legendary to the rich history of graffiti; it was my destiny to see where the roots of an art form that had taken over my life had begun. With my skateboard and cheap crappy paint I got off the bus in Times Square. I had never seen so many people in one place ever in my life. Growing up in a small town off a dirt road, I was a bit closed off from cities or graffiti culture. I had heard of this place that sounded like heaven from friends: a huge building with walls people could paint on legally. I had no idea that there was a such thing as legal graffiti. I had friends that had painted 5 points and gave me the address. I never had seen a subway before…the numbers and colors were extremely confusing, with people pushing and rushing to catch the train. I get on the train and these guys get on with a boom box and start clapping, rapping and doing tricks for money. It was like I was in Style wars or some shit. This blew my mind! So, I got off the train in Queens and skated down many streets. Then it starts to rain. I was starting to get nervous because the neighborhood didn’t look that good. I was alone and my phone had died. I called Meres from a pay phone and told him I was there but couldn’t find 5 points. He was very nice and told me to how to get there. I walked around the building, soaked, and finally saw the colors and the letters—my blood was rushing cause I was so excited. I was looking at a Toofly character; I had seen photos of her work in magazines but actually being able to touch it and study it was a different feeling. I looked around and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I didn’t know spray paint could even produce such clean clear images and how colorful everything was. I find Meres and we chatted a bit and he asked me if I wanted to paint. I was like damn, really?? I told him I wasn’t that good and never painted a legal wall—he laugh and showed me where I could paint. Meres looked at my paint and was like “wow whats that?” pointing at my paint (it was some cheap no name shit I found in a hardware store upstate). I had $50 bucks, a joint and a bus ticket with nowhere to stay. I came to 5 points alone in search of something, but I didn’t know what. It was the sense of community, it was the idea that we can help each other out without knowing one another. Meres gave me a couch to crash on with his nice friends who also gave me food to eat. My solo adventure to 5 points will never be forgotten.”

Shape, Crazis Crew, Chile (pretty sure Shape used Google translate, but her message is still clear)
I come to find this, I think it is very sad news … I also feel that it is disrespectful to the years of history that has that icon in graffiti. I think also that the massification of capitalism is destroying many things one of those was 5pointz and I think the saga continues for me personally and without physically meet 5pointz is shocking to hear the news because that place is part of the origin, that place within school stages and learning generated an absolute place, unique in the world like no other… diversity, color, techniques and there were many who were fortunate enough to be there … any graffiti writer 5pointz want to know if there was an important part of the history of graffiti ! ! this action could serve to cause excessive more … or you could turn the page and continue seeking and creating elsewhere 5pointz what was at the time but never be equaled , by the context and all that remained in those walls under the white paint … 5pointz goodbye. Kisses

Susan Farrell, Art Crimes
We were incredibly lucky to have 5Pointz for so long. It’s been threatened almost the whole time it’s been in use as a public art venue. I’m grateful to the owners and the caretakers, especially Meres, for all their efforts. Someone suggested it was buffed to prevent an 11th-hour landmark complication, which seems plausible, but I don’t know anything about that. If they are going to tear it down, it makes some sense symbolically to kill it first, I suppose. For me, it’s a little easier to watch it go that way, as if were in a shroud. I’ll always remember the view from the roof and the train, the many happy afternoons and wonderful artwork. We’ve got the art well documented as a community, and it’s well represented online, so I’m content that we have not lost the history even though we’ve lost the community space. Let’s make more.

The ephemeral nature of graffiti art doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be invested in preserving it if we can; it actually means the opposite: archiving is that much more crucial. The obsessive collecting and saving of pictures and tags in black books (which has all gone digital now) tells us a lot about how graffiti culture deals with the inescapability of the form’s ephemerality through excessive documentation, and always has.

I made my first Storify post to “save” the reactions from that morning and the few days that followed (19th-22nd). It is fascinating to trace the news as it spread over the digitally connected globe via social networking. I searched Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for #Save5Pointz and #5Pointz and compiled 38 “pages” of images, links, comments, statuses, and tweets. And unless I am mistaken, it only pulls public posts—so there are undoubtedly hundreds of private posts, in addition to posts without hashtags, and commentary that lives on other digital platforms. As you’ll see, scanning through the various posts and images, we are all trying to come to terms with our strong affective responses. 5Pointz wasn’t just about history, it was about connections; the whitewashing of 5Pointz, in turn, produced a collective desire to save what we could; memories are being exchanged between strangers, rivals, old school heads, and tourists. We may not be able to save the building, but we are already “saving” 5Pointz.

[View the story “Reactions to the Whitewashing of 5 Pointz” on Storify]


An Open Letter to the Wolkoff Family

October 9, 2013

Dear Wolkoff Family,

I perused my Facebook newsfeed while drinking my coffee this morning (as per my morning ritual), and came across Nir’s and Bagli’s piece from yesterday’s Times. I sighed and thought, “let’s see what the latest news is.” Sometimes, being in the “future” is a very strange thing indeed. You see, I’m writing from Abu Dhabi where it is already Wednesday morning, when you would be sitting at a City Council meeting anxiously waiting for a decision about the fate of a place you truly underestimate and undervalue.

And I’m sure this open letter, destined for my blog, will not reach you (literally or resolutely), but I just had to do something…say something, anything. I’m positive that folks have already told you this, but what you are about to destroy is much more valuable than you realize.

Under the careful curatorial and caretaking efforts of Meres1 (aka Jonathan Cohen), the space of a meaningless warehouse at Jackson and Crane became a cultural place called 5Pointz—meaning people have invested emotionally, socially, and meaningfully in a space that is now, quite literally, the mecca for graffiti writers internationally. Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, the people who have, through their labors of love and commitment, transformed that space into a place are not (by and large) people who have the capital—financial or cultural—to “save” it from extinction. And yet, they are determined to do so.

Since news of the proposed demolition of your 200k sq. ft. building went public, there have been petitions, videos (…so many videos), newspaper articles, TV news stories, and social networking campaigns to “Save5PTZ.” In one of those videos, you state “we love it, we think it’s terrific…but unfortunately times change.” And now I’m sitting here, thinking about the complicated relationship graffiti art has (and the writers who practice the form have) with the notion of “saving” and the carnivorous capitalistic desire for “changing” cities under contemporary urban planning practices (more often than not leading to gentrification and displacement).

Graffiti art breaks all the rules about “saving,” and for this reason the proposed demolition of 5Pointz is in a lot of ways the ultimate irony; and the desire to save it, a profound shift in the cultural habitus of the greatest contemporary public art form of the late 20th century that we’d be amiss to ignore.

5Pointz is called a “graffiti museum,” but I think that’s not just a misnomer, but an underestimation of its significance. 5Pointz is not just a museum, or a tourist destination. Sure, random tourists visit 5Pointz and enjoy the tours, but when writers (from the US and abroad) come to NYC, 5PTZ is always a primary destination—it’s a kind of rite of passage. But it is not like other tourist sites, where people visit and passively experience what is offered. They come to 5Pointz and contribute to its significance as a place, a cultural meeting point. They add their stories to the walls and windows of the building in a way that is cumulative, improvisational—a visual and vigorous call and response between writers who’ve painted that spot before and writers who will paint those same spots after. If 5Pointz was a person, she would be hailed as a living archive bursting with Hip Hop’s oral history. Each time a graffiti artist comes to her and offers an untold story through colors and composition, she records that narrative and whispers it to the next artist who approaches.

Demolishing 5Pointz will erase those stories, and that part of Hip Hop graffiti’s history—silencing a multitude of voices that otherwise would not be heard. And for what? Condos? Housing that the majority of Queens’ residents can not afford? Story-less towers, affectively empty spaces.

We ask that you withdraw your petition to construct those towers, knowing you probably won’t because cash rules everything around us. But I had to say something, anything, in the hopes that my call elicits some kind of response.

Please save 5Pointz.


Dr. Jessica Pabón

Lady Pink, Brick Lady, 2008

Lady Pink, Brick Lady, 2008