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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.

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