Arts & Life
6:11 pm
Thu November 21, 2013

Remembering 5Pointz: A Five-Story Building That Told Plenty More

Originally published on Thu November 21, 2013 6:54 pm

This week, New York City lost a cultural landmark. The site known as 5Pointz was a graffiti museum, of sorts — the walls of a 200,000-square-foot warehouse complex covered with ever-evolving spray-painted art. It spread across a block in Long Island City right across the water from Manhattan in the borough of Queens.

But it was all gone Tuesday. The owner of the building started painting over the art in preparation for demolition. The city had approved construction of two residential towers, despite efforts to designate the complex a culturally-significant structure. Overnight and into the morning, workers covered the art with white paint.

A Wall With No Ego

Millions of people used to get their first glimpse of 5Pointz from the 7 subway line. When the line emerges in Queens after tunneling under the East River, rows of bright, angular tags would come into view. The walls of the five-story building showcased enormous paintings: a turbaned head wrapped in sky-colored cloth, an orange tiger and, near that, an even-larger-than-real-life portrait of rapper Biggie Smalls.

"They call us vandals and hoodlums and whatever you may want to call it," says 5Pointz artist Jonathan Cohen. "I think it's quite the opposite." Cohen started painting here in the early 1990s, and he has been a de facto curator of the art on the buildings since 2002. He thinks it's the whitewashers who are the vandals.

He remembers the origins of the wall: "I said, '... Let me start this place up, let me have a wall where no ego is involved, and artists could come paint. Favoritism doesn't really float. If you do a good job and your piece comes out amazing, it could last longer. If you don't, then it goes.'"

Painters came from around the city, and around the world, to contribute. James Cochran was one of them. He's a New Zealander living in London. A friend introduced him to Cohen a few years ago, and Cohen invited him to work on a wall at 5Pointz. Cochran painted a portrait of a man in a hoodie. It was aerosol pointalism — meticulously composed of hundreds of different-colored spray dots.

Cochran remembers what attracted him to the space: "It's just this amazing feeling, because of the sounds and the sites — those screeching trains going overhead — that kind of confirms everything that we've learned as outsiders about the hip-hop history of New York City — starting from that whole subway culture. The remnants and history is still alive, you can still feel it."

Corinne Mitchell, a Londoner studying in Manhattan, visited the wall before it was covered over. "I like the technique of it," she says. "I like how the paint seems to be dripping and you can see the drip marks. It looks like it's been done very delicately but with a messy feel as well."

And just around the corner, Ali Moussaddykine, who's from Morocco and in town for an internship, contemplated a 20-foot-tall photorealistic painting of a hand with its index finger pointing toward the sky: "You can stare and think about a lot of things, about yourself, about the city, about people who made this. It means a lot of things," he says.

What Comes Next

The building's owner says that covering the art quickly with white paint was a way of saving the artists the emotional distress of seeing their work torn down slowly over the next few months. He says it's like a band-aid — rip it right off.

The building's owner has said he'll offer wall space for graffiti artists at the new buildings. At the moment, the 5Pointz crew doesn't seem that interested in taking him up on the offer.

James Rocco has worked at 5Pointz a lot over the years. Standing under the subway tracks looking at the whitewashed walls, he says the lost art is really only part of it.

"The walls tell only a small portion of the story about what's going on here," he says. "This is a community — I've met people here that are going to be lifelong friends of mine. I've met people from all over the world that I'm friends with now. We're going to continue and keep in touch and work together. We just have to figure out where."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

New York City lost a landmark this week. 5Pointz was a graffiti museum of sorts. The outside walls of the 200,000-square-foot warehouse complex were covered with an ever-evolving display of spray-painted art. For some two decades, the scene has covered a block in Long Island City across the river from Manhattan. But early Tuesday, the owner of the building started painting over it all in preparation for demolition.

The city approved construction of two residential towers there, despite efforts to designate the complex a culturally significant structure. Bruce Wallace has this remembrance.

BRUCE WALLACE, BYLINE: Millions of people got their first glimpse of 5Pointz from the 7 subway line when it emerges in Queens after tunneling under the East River. You'd see rows of bright, angular tags reaching up five stories and enormous paintings - a turbaned head wrapped in sky-colored cloth complete with clouds; an orange tiger leaping off to the right; and near that, an even bigger-than-real-life portrait of rapper Biggie Smalls.

The elevated train tracks wrap around the side of the building and a new expanse of paintings came into view. It was all gone Tuesday. Overnight and into the morning, workers had covered the art with swaths of white paint.

JONATHAN COHEN: They call us vandals and hoodlums. And I think it's quite the opposite.

WALLACE: It's the whitewashers who are the vandals, says Jonathan Cohen. He started painting here in the early 1990s and has been a de facto curator of the art on the building since 2002.

COHEN: I said, you know what, let me have a wall where no egos could get involved and artists could come paint. Favoritism doesn't really float. If you do a good job and your piece comes out amazing, it can last longer. If you don't, then it goes.

WALLACE: Painters came from around the city, and around the world, to contribute. James Cochran was one of them. He's a New Zealander living in London. A friend introduced him to Jonathan Cohen a few years ago and Cohen invited him to work on a wall here.

JAMES COCHRAN: It just is an amazing feeling, because of the sounds and the sights, like those screeching trains going overhead, that kind of just confirms everything that we've learned as outsiders about the hip-hop history of New York City. Starting from that whole subway culture, the remnants and the history, it's still alive. You can still feel it.

WALLACE: Cochran painted a portrait of a guy in a hoodie. It was aerosol pointillism, meticulously composed of hundreds of different-colored spray dots. Corinne Mitchell, a Londoner studying in Manhattan, got a chance to see it before it was covered over.

CORINNE MITCHELL: I like the technique of it. I like how the paint seems to be dripping, and you can see the drip marks. And it looks like it's been done very delicately but with a sort of a messy feel as well.

WALLACE: Around the corner, Ali Moussaddykine, a Moroccan in town for an internship, was contemplating a 20-foot-tall photorealistic painting of a hand with its index finger pointing toward the sky.

ALI MOUSSADDYKINE: You can stare and think about a lot of things, you know, about yourself, about the city, about the people who made this. It means a lot of things - look up or hope - a lot of things, yeah.

WALLACE: The building's owner told me that covering the art quickly with white paint was a way of saving the artists the emotional distress of seeing their work torn down slowly over the next few months. It's like a Band-Aid. Rip it right off, he said. James Rocco has worked at 5Pointz a lot over the years. Standing under the subway tracks looking at the whitewashed walls, he says the lost art is really only part of it.

JAMES ROCCO: The walls tells only a small portion of the story about what's going on here. This is a community. I've met people here that are going to be lifelong friends of mine. I've met people from all over the world that I'm friends with now, you know, that we're going to continue to keep in touch and work together. Now we just got to figure out where.

WALLACE: The building's owner has said he'll offer wall space for graffiti artists at the new buildings. At the moment, the 5Pointz crew doesn't seem that interested in taking him up on the offer. For NPR News, I'm Bruce Wallace in New York City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.