Near midnight in a downtown alleyway, the mysterious Believe in People—New Haven’s anonymous resident street artist—vaulted off a rooftop and into a clandestine meeting, before unveiling his largest work yet.
The cloak-and-dagger appointment with this reporter (me) was set up on short notice two Sundays ago. An email appeared in my inbox: Believe in People (BiP) is willing to meet you, but it has to be now, tonight. The ensuing two-hour conversation was conducted via pen-and-paper while seated on milk crates in the alley behind Hull’s art supply store on Chapel Street.
The meeting was off-the-record as a condition of its occurrence. BiP took the added precautions of keeping his face hidden (mostly) and declining to discuss details of his personal life or background.
Nor did he mention that he was working on the largest mural of his two-year career as a street artist in New Haven—a giant hand (pictured), painted on the wall of a lumber yard just over the border in West Haven in view of the Metro-North rail line. BiP announced the piece on Twitter four days later, on Dec. 20.
BiP completed the piece this month with the permission of Adam Wallace, vice-president of West Haven Lumber. It has already become a conversation-starter there, surprising otherwise task-oriented contractors into moments of artistic contemplation, according to Wallace.
That’s the kind of reaction BiP’s works often provoke. Appearing as they do in public spaces, BiP pieces can catch passersby unaware—an encouraging phrase stenciled on a curb, for example, or a stenciled mustache that turns a water pipe into a dapper gentleman.
Since his works began appearing on walls in New Haven two years ago, BiP’s identity has been a closely guarded secret. He’s given only one on-the-record interview, to a Yale campus publication when he first emerged in early 2011. He has refused repeated interview requests by the Independent. He did, however, make a rare exception and agree to meet for an off-the-record chat, because, he said, he was curious about the Independent’s close coverage of his artwork.
The email invitation arrived at 9:05 p.m., from “Neils,” BiP’s intermediary.
Neils said to meet in the back of the alley next to Hull’s, where BiP painted a mural of a man vaulting over a mountain range. Arrive at 11:30 p.m. Don’t be early. Wait for him to appear.
I arrived at the appointed hour and walked to the end of the alley, a brightly lit area. I waited for an apprehensive moment or two, then heard the sound of movement. It was getting louder, but no one was coming down the alley. Someone was approaching, but from where?
Suddenly, BiP vaulted off the roof of a nearby single story building and onto a metal staircase. He walked down a flight of steps and shook my hand wordlessly.
BiP, who’s in his mid-20s, wore a hood and a hat and a black bandanna over his nose and mouth. (He asked me not to describe his physical appearance.)
He removed two gray milk crates and a green spiral-bound notebook from a plastic shopping bag from Target, which had been waiting below the stairs. (BiP shops at Target?) He set the crates side by side in a doorway and gestured for me to sit on one. He sat on the other, pulled out a black Sharpie and scribbled out a greeting.
The use of pen and paper was intended to further conceal BiP’s identity. I was to not even hear the sound of his voice.
That plan fell apart almost immediately. A man emerged from a second-story doorway and cast a suspicious eye down at the two sketchy dudes crouched on crates in the alley.
BiP pulled down his bandanna immediately, revealing his profile for a split second. “Hey. How’s it going?” he said to the man.
The man mumbled a greeting, came down the stairs and squeezed past us. He returned a short time later with a soda and some chips, ignoring us on his way back inside.
After chuckling about how his secret-agent tactics had fallen apart, BiP spent the next two and a half hours scrawling answers in his notebook as I asked him questions, and putting his own questions to me.
As the notebook filled up, a picture of the mysterious artist behind the illegal murals emerged. He appeared to me as I might have expected from his artwork: a driven, nearly obsessive, optimistic dreamer who’s fascinated by New Haven.
In some ways, BiP wears his heart on his sleeve, very publicly. He paints borderline-corny messages of love and hope that wouldn’t be out of place on a Hallmark card, and puts them up for all to see. Consider his nearly touchy-feely manifesto of a name. He takes big risks to send large-scale, often emotional messages to New Haveners.
But despite such gushing sentimentality, BiP guards his secrets closely. He’s fixated on anonymity, on working in the shadows, unknown. After more than two hours with a masked man in a cold and damp alleyway, I left with some more understanding of who BiP is, but little sense of who the man is when he’s not BiP.
He offered only one statement on the record, about why he declines interviews: “Nobody wants to hear me run my mouth. If I have something to say I should shut up and take it to a wall.”
Before BiP left the alley the same way he arrived, by springing back onto the roof, I asked him if I could keep the notebook as a memento of the meeting. He said no.
Four days later, BiP posted a picture on Twitter of his latest piece: a giant hand painted on the wall of West Haven Lumber.
“Lost count of the below-freezing all-nighters. Worth it just to see the sun on this,” he wrote.
Click the play arrow to see a short “making of” video he made about the mural, backed by a song by the Bullitts entitled “Run and Hide.”
BiP’s latest painting depicts an enormous pink hand—some two stories tall—on a white background. The hand seems to be dripping yellow paint from fingers and thumbs.
It’s the largest work yet by BiP and one of only a few outside of New Haven.
Wallace, the lumber company’s 31-year-old vice president, said he contacted Neils during the summer to see if BiP wanted to paint on the wall. The spot had been tagged repeatedly with “lousy graffiti, messing up the wall with a bunch of scribbles,” Wallace said. “For a long time I’ve had in mind to use that space as a canvas for something a little more real, a little bit more meaningful.”
It took more than a month before Neils responded to Wallace’s email. They worked out the logistics over the following months.
BiP worked nights over the course of about a week, Wallace said. He never saw the artist. “He came in the shadows. At night.”
Wallace said he saw a sketch of the planned piece before it went up, but didn’t have any say, other than veto power, in what BiP would paint. BiP and Neils “were clear from the beginning that I would have no editorial control at all. They weren’t interested in doing any sort of commissioned piece.”
Although BiP offered the painting without an artist’s statement, a couple of interpretations have emerged at the lumber yard, Wallace said. “Some people see it as an aspirational piece,” he said. “The hand reaching up to the sky and reaching out to a higher power or higher level.” Other people see it as a hand reaching out for help.
Wallace said some people have seen the drips on the hand as blood. He offered a different take: “It could be Believe in People’s own hand while doing his work and getting paint all over himself.”
Wallace recalled a moment last weekend when he was out back helping to load up a customer’s order. “I caught him looking at the wall,” Wallace said. “We got into what it meant to him”—a hand asking for help.
“It’s a different vibe for a lumber yard,” Wallace said. “Guys here are usually focused on one task at a time ... whatever they’re doing that day.” BiP’s new painting is making people take a moment to stop and ponder.