Street Artist Kaves Slaps the NYPD With a Lawsuit, Saying It Illegally Whitewashed a New York Mural He Painted With Full Permission

The artist created the mural 13 years ago in Brooklyn as a tribute to his mother.

Kaves and Revs Death from Above. The mural has since been painted over. Photo by Donna McLeer.

Brooklyn artist Michael McLeer, who goes by the name Kaves, has filed a lawsuit in Brooklyn Federal court against the New York City Police Department demanding an immediate halt to a graffiti cleanup campaign that he says has wrongly destroyed authorized artworks in numerous instances.

In April, according to the lawsuit, the NYPD destroyed Kaves’s mural Death From Above, created in 2008 alongside another artist, Revs, with the full permission of the property owner.

“When I found out this piece was destroyed, I was devastated,” Kaves said in a statement. “When I made this work, I was full of pride. I felt it had an epic quality to it. It was a piece dedicated to my mother and became one of my oldest public pieces, standing untouched for 13 years.”

The case “is about the NYPD’s attack on graffiti and street art that endangers hundreds of valuable, recognized, and permitted artworks across the five boroughs,” the artist said in the lawsuit.

Kaves’s lawyers said the NYPD’s “haphazard” coordination of the graffiti clean-up campaign involved volunteers, and was heralded as a collaboration between the public and the police department.

Contacted by Artnet News, the NYPD said it does not comment on pending litigation.

Image via PACER

Image via PACER.

The lawsuit cites an April 10 tweet from the NYPD showing the mural being covered over with gray paint. The accompanying text reads: “During today’s Community & NYPD graffiti cleanup: Officers partnered up with volunteers from around Farragut to clean graffiti from 115 York Street.”

“In reality, upon information and belief, the city lacked the budget to undertake the cleanup which they sought to fill by recruiting untrained volunteers,” according to the suit. Kave also alleges that the NYPD failed to inquire about the permitted status of the artwork and made on-the-fly judgments about which artworks to target for clean-up. 

The artist is asking the court to decide whether the NYPD’s policy and practices violate the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), which gives artists certain protections for public art projects. 

An important precedent for VARA was set in 2018, when the Brooklyn Supreme Court ruled in favor of a group of artists seeking damages against the real estate developer Gerald Wolkoff, who whitewashed their work at the 5Pointz graffiti mecca in the middle of the night with no advance notice.

The landmark $6.75 million ruling, which was upheld on appeal in early 2020, awarded $150,000—the maximum legal penalty—for each of the 45 destroyed works.

Eric Baum, the same attorney who represented the 5Pointz artists, is representing Kaves alongside fellow attorney Juyoun Han. 

Contacted by Artnet News, Baum and Han said they were willing to represent other artists who decide to join in the lawsuit for a potential class action case.

“There is no magic number for class certification and the judge will decide this question,” the pair said in a statement. “What we know is that Mr. Kaves’s artwork’s loss is one example of hundreds of valued artworks subject to destruction or endangerment by NYPD’s actions.”

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