Construction workers at the Little Theater arrived at the job site to find a new occupant inside: An old man with a cane scrawling a message of love on the wall. Without permission.
It was the latest clandestine artwork surprise (or attack, depending on your point of view) perpetrated by a man known only as Believe in People. For a year and a half he has been making a name for himself in New Haven—and on New Haven.
BiP, as he’s known, stenciled the painting in the Little Theater on Audubon Street sometime before last Thursday morning. That’s when workers found the image of the love-struck old man on a wall inside the performance space, which is in the midst of a full renovation.
It was the latest in a series of pieces BiP has done in town, starting in the fall of 2010 with a stenciled painting of a boy and a dog on a lab building at Yale. Since then, he’s hit many other locations, mostly at Yale, with stencils and spray-paint and wheat-paste posters. He’s either a vigilante public artist bringing beauty to the masses, or a serial vandal defacing private property.
You’ve seen the gallery show that’s known as BiP’s New Haven. You just might not know it.
“Do Something Amazing”
BiP’s highest-profile painting is the enormous smiling portrait of Anne Frank on a wall outside Partners bar on Crown Street. In March, he put up another big mural downtown, of someone vaulting over a mountain range in an alley near Hull’s—with the art-supply store’s permission.
The tradition merges artistic expression and criminal activity. Street art is by definition painted on other people’s property, either public or private, creating an expense for property owners who choose to remove it. To some, it’s an unsightly nuisance; to others, a transformation of public space into a realm of discovery and wonder.
What it means to BiP is largely unknown. He has chosen to remain anonymous and mostly silent on his work. He’s given only one interview, to a reporter of his choosing at the Yale Daily News (YDN). He does Tweet occasionally, has posted a couple of videos online and, when necessary, interacts with people through an intermediary named Neils.
“For better or worse, BiP has shown no interest in making a name for himself and seems content to focus on painting unknown and anonymously through New Haven,” Neils said.
In March, BiP declined an interview request from the Independent. This month, Neils said BiP is “working on a project that makes communication with him impractical at the moment.”
Small clues to BiP’s identity have emerged. He recently Tweeted that he graduated from Princeton in 2007. He follows the Dalai Lama and Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders on Twitter. Last November he tweeted that had been dating a Yalie for three months. The YDN reporter who spoke with him described him as tall and thin, with Buddy Holly glasses, somewhere in his 20s, dressed in cheap preppy clothes. Neils said he became an artist after quitting a job as an investment banker.
Whatever his real identity, a clear artistic personality pervades BiP’s artworks. Believe in People seems to be not just a name but also a manifesto. BiP told the YDN he took the name after a childhood friend passed away and the friend’s journals showed a deep skepticism of humanity.
BiP’s pieces often evince a kind of self-helpy good cheer and whimsy. The Hull’s alleyway image of a man vaulting over a mountain range has the caption “Do Something Amazing.”
Another piece shows a man exalting atop a mountain formed by a brick-exposing hole in a plastered wall.
A painted parking spot boundary on York Street becomes a launch ramp for a stunt biker.
In perhaps his largest work, BiP stenciled encouraging phrases on 23 city curbs downtown and at Yale. He made an accompanying Google map, called “Encurbagement,” showing that the stencils connect to form his initials. In effect, he tagged all of downtown, just like the artist Momo tagged Manhattan.
He sounds a rare note of lament in recent piece showing hands holding a letter from “Everyone you know & love,” telling him he’s wasting his life as a graffiti artist.
Other artworks are specifically Yale-centric, showing an interest in the history and culture of the university. In November 2010, BiP plastered an image of Geronimo hanging from the roof of Skull and Bones, as though in mid-escape from the secret society. (It didn’t last there long.) Click the play arrow above to see a short video BiP made about that piece, including behind-the-scenes footage of the mixing of wheat paste.
This January he put up a stencil in a Yale classroom in Linsley-Chittenden Hall. It depicts a young man in a suit writing repeatedly on the wall: “I will only work finance 1 year.” In February, he made an unauthorized contribution to the Yale MFA thesis show.
Art Or Vandalism?
Yale’s response to BiP has been condemnation, with a note of appreciation.
“Our position on graffiti is that no matter how beautiful it may be (and most of it is far from beautiful) it is an act of vandalism which if not promptly removed sends a signal to people in the area that the owners and residents of the area think it’s not worth it to maintain their property,” said Abigail Rider, real estate manager for Yale. “Graffiti makes people feel unsafe and attracts additional vandalism. The key to controlling graffiti is to remove it quickly and completely.”
“Believe in People is clearly a graphic artist of some ability,” Rider said. She said she’s happy to see that he worked with Hull’s to put up an authorized mural “rather than trespassing and vandalizing someone’s property. We’re all enjoying it!”
“I think it’s fine,” Hull’s manager Stewart Johnson said of the mural. He said BiP put it up over several nights in March. “It brings a lot of color to an otherwise unremarkable place.”
Johnson said BiP did the mural for free and with an offer to paint over it if Hull’s wasn’t happy with the result.
The Little Theater, like Yale, had a mixed response to BiP’s latest illegal piece.
“We did get a contribution of a painting. ... It’s fascinating, isn’t it?” mused Bob Parker, spokesman for Area Cooperative Educational Services (ACES), which owns the theater. Then he offered ACES’ official stance: The piece amounts to “an illegal entry into a site that was closed for safety reasons.”
Dealing with the painting will be “one more slowdown in a building that has already had some calendar issues,” Parker said. (Little Theater renovation is running months behind schedule. It should be complete by next January, Parker said.)
The city’s response was more direct.
City spokeswoman Elizabeth Benton said the following about BiP’s “Encurbagement” project: “The City of New Haven and the arts community strongly support public art in a way few communities in the region can match. But murals or stencils on private or City property without permission is vandalism. The City can’t be in the position to support certain acts of vandalism over others based on the interesting nature or attractiveness of the messaging.”
Benton said the city has “no immediate plans” to remove the sidewalk stencils. “The city prioritizes [the removal of] offensive or gang-related tags.” New Haven spends about $1,500 a month on graffiti removal, she said.
Ben Berkowitz, who has some experience fighting vandalism as the former head of the Upper State Street Neighborhood Association, said he’s a fan of BiP. “That Anne Frank thing is amazing.”
What separates BiP from other graffiti artists is that he’s making something “beautiful,” not just scrawling his name around town, Berkowitz argues. “He’s thinking about what he’s putting out there,” not just spreading his “brand.”
“That’s something to be respected. That clearly defines it as art.”
BiP is “intentionally trying to create social value where writing your own name on property generates zero social value,” Berkowitz said.
Berkowitz, the founder of the SeeClickFix community problem-solving website, said he’s not aware of anyone ever complaining about a BiP piece there. Berkowitz is also something of a public artist himself, having helped to organize the ongoing Inside-Out project that will transform a bleak Humphrey Street underpass into an outdoor photographic portrait gallery. He said that project is down “in the same spirit” as BiP’s work.
Berkowitz said he draws the line at painting on private property, which “should not be touched.” When graffiti art appears on public property, people can use public forums like SeeClickFix to decide if the work should be preserved or removed, Berkowitz said.
“Pro Bono Exterior Decorator”
In his interview with the YDN, BiP explained how he chooses where to paint. “I only paint on either run-down surfaces that aren’t being taken care of, or surfaces that I know can cheaply be cleaned,” he said, according to the YDN. “If I really feel the need to do something on a valuable surface, I’ll usually do it in a medium like wheat paste or spray chalk that doesn’t permanently damage the surface. That’s just me personally, where my code of ethics lies as an artist.
In an email to the Independent, Neils offered some insight into why BiP has chosen to paint so often on Yale property:
“BiP seems to have several reasons for frequenting Yale’s campus. For one, he feels no moral qualms about painting on university property. In his viewpoint, it’s as if he feels he’s forcing the university to pay for his work, and unlike a small business owner, the university is in a financial situation where they can afford to foot the bill without causing harm to any individuals. A cleaning charge here or there doesn’t cause them to change their overall financial scheme, and in the past, while the upper level bureaucrats have voiced discomfort with his work, I’ve seen lower tier employees taking pictures of his pieces on their phones. Since I’ve worked with him, BiP has always taken the surfaces he paints very seriously and becomes visibly upset when he feels he has painted something that did not add positively to the environment.
“Secondly, BiP has told me that painting university property poses a specific challenge due to the number of patrol cars dedicated to the area, as well as late night student movements. [Click here to see a video BiP posted about his ‘relationship with the Yale police.’] As a result, virtually no other artist has frequented the area in the way he has. This has a tendency of spotlighting his pieces and drawing more discussion and consideration than they might in more relaxed painting environments. So I guess BiP sees painting Yale’s campus as a high-risk/high-reward situation.
“I think it’s also worth noting here that he seems to be in his natural element on Yale’s campus. He graduated from an Ivy League school, so he understands Yale culture in a very direct way. Compounded by the fact that he looks deceptively young, he has had no problem blending in with students and faking his way into buildings, where other graffiti artists might have stuck out more.”
Neils said BiP has an uncanny ability to disarm people, demonstrated by his story of how BiP painted the Anne Frank mural:
“BiP began the wall in broad daylight during the confusion of the St. Patrick’s Day parade that year . He knew that he would not be able to finish the wall at night without being arrested, so he had decided the best way to go about it would be during the daytime with crowds distracting police and passerby. Toward the end of his painting, the owner of Partner’s Bar arrived and confronted BiP. BiP spoke with the owner calmly and asked him to give him a chance to finish the wall, showing him sketches of the final image. The owner was initially very upset, but appreciated that BiP had white-washed the aging wall before beginning to spray-paint, so he agreed to give BiP the rest of the day and night to finish his work with the understanding that if he didn’t like it, BiP would paint back over it. In the end, the owner was thrilled with the work and decided to leave the piece.”
The owner of Partners Cafe couldn’t be reached to confirm this account.
Neils continued: “This scenario must sound absolutely ridiculous to someone that doesn’t know BiP, but if you met him, you’d understand just how disarming he can be. In fact, a similar scenario happened when he painted that Yale classroom wall: a few Yale students walked in to use the room for some late-night cramming, and after taking a break to explain to the students what he was doing and asking them not to photograph him, he finished the piece in front of the students. After he described this encounter to me, I was worried that images of him would surface online, but it appears that the students were true to their word. And I think that’s just classic BiP: he has a way of bringing out the best in people by giving them seemingly reckless amounts of blind trust.”
Despite this “blind trust,” BiP takes careful measures to protect his identity. Neils described meeting BiP when he spotted him painting a piece at Mory’s, one of his first publicly recognized works in New Haven. Neils said he was so moved by the sight that he followed BiP and then ran up to him and said he wanted to be a part of what he was doing. “He was obviously suspicious of me, but very calm, and told me he’d consider meeting me at a bench on the Green. I waited at the bench during the time he told me he might be there every day for three weeks, before he finally approached me and we had our first real conversation. He told me afterwards that he had waited to see how serious I was about my proposition.”
Neils said BiP is both a “graffiti artist” and a “street artist,” practicing the former in New York and the latter here in New Haven:
“A graffiti artist, as BiP has explained to me, is someone that focuses on lettering styles. According to him, a graffiti artist has two primary goals: getting his/her name out and developing and perfecting a unique lettering style. A street artist, on the other hand, is dedicated to using the street as a medium, whether it is through spray-painting, stenciling, wheat-pasting, sculptures, etc. Although street art and graffiti share a lot of common elements, the meanings and intentions seem to be very different. From what I gather, BiP does not consider what he does in New Haven to be traditional graffiti, and likewise traditional graffiti writers would probably be infuriated to hear his New Haven work called ‘graffiti.’ (According to BiP, most traditional writers view street art as the degradation of a community committed to graffiti for graffiti’s sake.)
“I’m not sure what BiP considers his work to be. In some ways, I would have to call it ‘guerilla painting,’ since even most street artists belong to some sort of community, and BiP has shown no interest in doing galleries, selling canvases, or socializing with other artists. However, BiP’s New Haven pieces are only half of his work. BiP commutes back and forth between New Haven and New York, writing traditional graffiti in New York and creating non-traditional pieces in New Haven. For legal and personal reasons, BiP has asked me in the past not to reveal the name that he writes in New York. As far as I know, the New York writers he associates with are entirely unaware of what he is doing in New Haven, so he seems to keep his life very compartmentalized and secretive, even with friends. I often wonder to myself if I am the only person that knows the scope of his life, but then it occurs to me that perhaps I don’t and just think I do.”
In April BiP tweeted a succinct description of what he does. He said a fifth-grader asked his occupation. “I told her I was a pro bono exterior decorator.”