You can see it through the windows of the 7 train as it skirts along the East River into Queens: The big warehouse walls announcing in bold block letters that they’re not just a shelter for beat-up halal carts, but home to the largest collection of graffiti art in New York. Down below, next to a dirty cement loading dock covered by as many tourists as delivery trucks, four men sit in plastic chairs, painting cartoon faces on black lightbulbs to sell as original art.
Meres, the leader of the group, takes breaks from his project to explain to clumps of international tourists that his newest mural, painted in a corner across several walls, all lines up if you look at it from a vantage point marked with a white X on the cement. But it might not be there for long, he tells them: The murals usually last somewhere between one week and two years. He pauses as the 7 train rattles by, pointing to the word “CHILD” in faded pink letters on another wall—the single piece remaining from the building’s days as the Phun Phactory, a prior graffiti institute that ran the space before Meres took over and changed its name in 2002.
Meres—whose real name is Jonathan Cohen—is the curator of the 5Pointz Aerosol Art Center, an outdoor gallery of graffiti art in Long Island City that attracts top international artists to contribute detailed murals to the walls of a block-long industrial complex, whose interior hosts the aforementioned halal carts and other mundanities.
Recently, rumors of a demolition to clear space for two residential high-rises have put the future of 5Pointz in jeopardy, a possibility Meres only half-acknowledges. He addresses the situation with somewhat reticent skepticism: “I’ll just say this—we’re not going anywhere this year, and I doubt we’ll be going anywhere next year.” He’d rather get back to painting lightbulbs.
No date has been set for the demolition, but “Save 5PTZ” tags accompany existing murals on all sides of the building. In mid-2012, David Wolkoff, the owner of the Long Island City property, submitted a demolition proposal at a community board meeting which named the target date as this September.
However, as recently as mid-March, a 5Pointz spokesperson told Business Insider that the demolition would need special clearance from the MTA and Amtrak, due to the property’s close proximity to the train tracks—permission which has yet to be granted. Coupled with that, the arduous procedure of getting building approval from the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure board will likely tie up any demolition plans for months. Given that Wolkoff stands to gain nothing from immediate demolition without the promise of building approval, it seems unlikely that the complex will be destroyed in a matter of a few months, as many outlets have reported.
Meanwhile, amid this high-stakes real estate drama, Meres keeps painting.
He gives his white-out pen a shake and touches up the cartoonish eyes on the lightbulb.
“There’s nothing like this around the world,” he says. “It’s one-of-a-kind. And not many places generate this kind of demographic.”
Over 11 years, Meres has cultivated the site into a destination for international artists and visitors, which he hopes to pair with a graffiti museum and school for aspiring artists. The 5Pointz name marks it as the center of graffiti in New York, indicating a convergence of the five boroughs, and its walls house the stylized nicknames of hundreds of artists.
One of its prominent graffiti artists, Bishop 203, calls 5Pointz the “Times Square of graffiti” for its rich mix of colors and visitors (gaudy advertisements not included).
“You can go there on a Saturday and see 20 different artists from five different countries painting there,” he says. “To me, that’s beautiful.”
The possible demolition is not simply another “there goes the neighborhood” situation—graffiti art and culture will turn out OK, but the art form stands to lose one of its largest monuments.
“5Pointz is centrally located in the minds of graffiti artists and viewers of art worldwide, so people see it and associate it with the history of graffiti writing in New York,” Gregory Snyder, a sociology professor at Baruch College, said. Snyder is the author of a book on the subculture of graffiti in New York.
For tourists, 5Pointz provides an alternative to the MoMA and Met—or a good companion to MoMA PS1 just down the block. But there’s no suggested donation, and the art is on the outside.
“I go to the Metropolitan a lot,” Meres said. “Where you have canvasses that are pretty big, but here it’s a lot larger scale, you know, it’s outdoors, it’s ever-changing.”
“It’s not that different than art in a museum,” Lou Albruzzese, a visitor from Long Island, says. “But when exhibits change in a museum, the Picassos always exist somewhere. You can always put them back up.”
The experience of 5Pointz reminds visitors of the museum experience, but it’s more organic. Frames don’t divide one piece from another, and everything is contemporary.
“I have plans to come back next summer,” Albruzzese adds. “Just to see what’s new and what’s different.”
Graffiti art doesn’t look to the longevity of Greek statues for its inspiration—it updates itself and urges new creation.
“It’s constantly changing,” Snyder says. “It’s pretty democratic. It doesn’t keep the superstars up.”
5Pointz is not the definitive collection of graffiti art, nor does it claim to be. But it acts as a starting point to discover similar art on surfaces across the city.
“You can travel around the city with the intent or not of looking for art,” Snyder says. “With graffiti, you get this personal experience because you discovered it. It can be vandalistic, but it’s pretty fascinating vandalism.”
The New York City art Snyder admires is, for the most part, illegal, but the pieces at 5Pointz are done legally. With more time and space to work, the artists can pay more attention to detail and develop murals more substantial than those seen elsewhere.
“Painting legally gives you the opportunity to focus on the piece without worrying about getting busted by the cops,” says Zeso, an artist who has painted at 5Pointz about 80 times in the past three years. “You can really take time to schedule a multi-day production.”
Without the need to be secretive, Meres often lends his help to the projects.
“Ultimately I don’t want to be on every wall,” he says. “But sometimes if there’s a graffiti writer that’s really good, if he has a project that’s a little too big, I’ll help touch up the background.”
Meres finishes his box of lightbulbs and walks across the cement from his plastic chair to a mural he’s working on. It shows a creepy-looking cartoon kid sitting at a desk, with one of Meres’ signature lightbulb faces painted on the t-shirt.
Meres isn’t sure how long the piece will last, and there’s a tarp covering the unfinished bottom section. He still has work to do.
Correction: A prior version of this article referred to the property owner as David Wolfkoff, not Wolkoff. Spectator regrets the error.