Does graffiti qualify as important fine art? And if so, does a property owner have a responsibility to preserve it?

These questions are at the heart of a potentially groundbreaking lawsuit underway in Brooklyn, where 20 artists are facing off against a real estate developer over the fate of 5Pointz, the street art mecca in Long Island City, Queens.

More than a dozen artists packed into a federal courtroom on Wednesday to watch as lawyers debated whether the destruction of their murals was a violation of their rights. The case is expected to consider novel questions, including art’s role in gentrification and the growing stature of street art.

“Street art has soared through the roof in terms of popularity and value,” says attorney Barry Werbin of the firm Herrick & Feinstein. “These are all untested issues, which is why the case is so fascinating.” (The judge seems to agree. At the close of arguments on Wednesday, he told the jury they were “lucky” to be involved in such an unusual case.)

At its core, the lawsuit pits artists’ ability to protect and preserve their own work against developers’ authority to do what they please with their own property. The collision course began in 1993, when developer Jerry Wolkoff gave artists free reign over his then-blighted property in Long Island City. Read more