Believe In ... Me?
by Thomas MacMillan | Jan 6, 2014 12:01 pm
Posted to: Arts & Culture, Film, Visual Arts
At a standing-room-only film screening, New Haven’s most famous pseudonymous artist shared his SAT score, thanked his friends, lashed out at detractors, and announced he’s leaving town.
The artist, known as “BiP,” didn’t offer that information in person, but by way of a video he made, called “BiP: The Mixtape.” Over 100 people (including 2013 mayoral candidates Justin Elicker, Gary Holder-Winfield, and Henry Fernandez) gathered to watch it Saturday night at 1175 State St., the old Robby Len swimsuit factory building.
BiP—formerly known as “Believe in People”—organized the film screening with the help of Lou Cox, owner of the Channel One skate shop in the building. The film served as a farewell. BiP said in the movie that he’s leaving town to pursue street art more widely.
Over the last several years, BiP has built a name for himself in New Haven by illegally putting up artwork around the city. His early works were mostly at Yale, but arguably his most visible pieces are the Anne Frank mural (pictured) on Crown Street and the “Supa-Thug” piece on State Street. He’s often compared to Banksy, the international street artist.
BiP wasn’t at Saturday’s screening. Or if he was, he didn’t reveal himself. He continues to closely guard his real identity. In Saturday’s film, his face and voice were digitally scrambled.
The film, over an hour long, comprised voice-distorted audio-only monologues intermixed with video montages of scenes from New Haven and Taiwan, where BiP spent the summer.
BiP’s movie did reveal new details of his personal history, motivations, pet peeves, and philosophy. It also offered a glimpse into his complicated character: a mixture of idealism and indignation, self-absorption and sentimentality, ambition and anxiety.
In the end, the movie revealed more about the artist’s self-image than about the images he makes.
BiP engineered the Saturday film-screening to be a one-off event, to be experienced only by people who showed up. He didn’t post the video online; Cox said the disc that was shown would be destroyed after the screening.
Before the lights went down, Cox (pictured) announced that no one would be allowed to photograph, videotape, or otherwise record the film. He said if anyone did pull out a recording device, he would shut off the video and end the event.
It’s unclear exactly why BiP organized the screening that way. It may have been so that the film can’t be used against him if he’s ever caught painting illegally. But it also served to perpetuate the artist’s mystique and allowed him to continue to exert tight control over his public persona.
BiP has always been defined by his anonymity. When asked why he doesn’t give interviews (outside of occasional media dips like this one), he has said he’d rather communicate through his artwork alone, that it’s not about him.
The film screening turned that notion on its head. It was about the artist and his ambitions almost exclusively, presenting a blustery against-all-odds narrative that now bravely continues as BiP departs New Haven to conquer the rest of the world.
The video conveyed little about the artwork itself, BiP’s message, what he wants to communicate. Some of the touching inspiration and whimsical provocativeness of BiP’s painted artwork were present in the film, but the focus was mostly on the artist, not the art. While BiP hides his true identity, the video revealed that he also longs to be known, to be recognized.
Working under a pseudonym can be self-effacing—diverting attention from the artist to the artwork. Or it can be self-aggrandizing—and opportunity to craft a new mythological identity. BiP seems to be doing both.
The film began with some of the artist’s personal back story, voiced by BiP as a transcript flashed across a black screen.
As a kid, BiP said, he was “the runt of the litter,” with hearing problems and a speech impediment. He turned to artwork as a refuge and kept his drawings all to himself, so as to never be judged.
His family didn’t have a lot of money, so he “worked [his] ass off” in school, to make sure he would succeed, and ended up with a perfect GPA in high school. His parents couldn’t afford to pay for an SAT prep course for him, so he studied at the local Books-A-Million, doing practice tests out of prep manuals. He got a perfect score on the SAT, he said.
In the mid-2000s, he went to “an Ivy League school.” (He has previously tweeted that he graduated from Princeton in 2007.) He continued to work hard, so as not so miss “his shot” at success. After college, he got a “2-percenter” job and was “pulling six out the gate.” (BiP later did a piece (pictured) in Yale’s Linsley-Chittenden Hall about Ivy-Leaguers going into finance after graduation.)
Then he had an experience that changed his life. Through random chance, “death came to me,” he said. For undisclosed reasons, he found himself on the brink of dying.
“The pain was infinite,” he said. “Because I’d fucked up.” He saw “how empty my life was.” He’d “followed the path” that he thought he was supposed to, and found nothing but regret when he looked back.
“I looked death in the eye and said, ‘All right. Let’s roll,” he said. “Against all odds. I didn’t die.”
After his near-death experience, BiP gave away most of his money, traveled, and started drawing again. He met a graffiti artist and was deeply inspired by the man’s “zen-like” calm as he hit “ridiculously illegal walls.”
BiP had the urge to tag someplace no one had ever though to hit, like an Ivy League university. While security would be tighter on such a campus than most anywhere else, BiP would have the opportunity to get a message to the world’s future leaders, while they’re still young and impressionable. And it was an environment he was familiar with, as an Ivy Leaguer himself. That’s how he ended doing illegal street art at Yale while living on Dwight Street and working in Hamden.
BiP then described how he nearly got caught by cops while putting up his first piece at Yale. He kept hitting harder and harder walls—Mory’s, Skull and Bones—until he “ran out of ways to top [him]self.”
But the film showed only brief glimpses of BiP’s early Yale pieces, and didn’t talk about the content of the art. It’s unclear what message BiP was trying to impart to those future world leaders on the Yale campus. BiP didn’t discuss that in the film, nor did he let the pieces speak for themselves: His artworks flashed only briefly on the screen. The focus was on BiP’s ambition, his conquests.
At several points in the film, BiP seemed to be defending himself against real or perceived slights. The first was a discussion of town/gown dynamics, during which he sounded surprisingly aggrieved.
“People rip on me for not taking a side” in a Yale versus New Haven battle, BiP said. He said he loves both the university and the town.
“You look like a clown when you step to me about taking a side!” he announced. It was unclear whom he was addressing.
After a video montage of scenes from New Haven and BiP’s works here, BiP sought to settle another dispute: between the art community and graffiti artists. Graffiti isn’t better than studio art, but it is a “superset, not a subset,” BiP said.
He later invoked Gerhard Richter to defend graffiti writers from people who dismiss their work as just “design studies.”
And he blasted public art, which he said usually gets watered down to “the least common denominator” because people are afraid of controversy. Advertisers, meanwhile, are allowed to put up all kinds of messages designed to make people think they’re ugly or incomplete without the latest consumer product, BiP argued.
In the latter part of the film, BiP relayed the story of his recent adventures in Taiwan: His struggles to make street art in a foreign land, his unlikely friendship with a man called Little Rain, landing a job making custom-painted motorcycle helmets, then cooperating with a Taiwanese museum to put up a huge mural (pictured).
BiP talked about his technical challenges painting the mural and his difficult negotiations with the museum over the composition. He didn’t offer any hints to the intended meaning behind the image, a boy with braces and a black eye laughing as blood drips from his nose. He showed a clip of a newscast about the piece; he didn’t translate it into English.
I thought the museum piece was, like other BiP works, about cheerfulness in the face of adversity. At least a couple of people in the audience thought it must be a commentary about cocaine use in Taiwan. On BiP’s website, the piece is entitled “Worth Every Blow,” which could go either way.
BiP’s film included lots of street scenes from New Haven, New York, and Taiwan, artfully edited and well matched to music by Generation X, Polyphonic Spree, The Eels and Kanye West. BiP has a sentimental eye for cute kids, happy moments with smiling passersby, and inspiring sunsets. His talent is apparent across media, from painting to video and animation.
BiP closed the film with a farewell. He said he’ll be “traveling more,” leaving New Haven for two reasons, both bold claims.
First reason: He thinks he’s been “monopolizing” public space in New Haven. He said his goal has always been to inspire people to reclaim public space.
Second reason: The big names in the graffiti world are no longer innovating, and he’s ready to make his mark. “I’m ready to smash it.”
Previous coverage of BiP:
“Believe in People” Strikes Again
“Believe In People” Hits Downtown Rooftop
Church Embraces Guerrilla Artwork
Believe In People Returns From, To Underground
BiP Reaches Out
Believe In People: Don’t Believe Your Eyes
BiP Is Hiring
Condoms, Genocide—& A “Believe”-able Cameo
“Believe In People” Makes A Baby
Tags: BiP, Believe in People, public art
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Before he becomes too famous, New Haven should come up with an offer that BiP can’t refuse.
We have some nasty parking garages and public buildings that could use a new facade.
posted by: shadesofzero on January 6, 2014 12:25pm
Do people really compare him to Banksy? It seems the NHI is the main source of information on Believe in People, so this sounds a lot more like “setting the narrative” than reporting. Furthermore, if there’s a comparison to be made, it’s in the BiP has essentially followed the Banksy script to the T: using anonymity to drive publication, to sell his elusivity, to use stencils and paint under the cover of night, etc.
Which is not to say that the art isn’t through-provoking or his reclamation of public space isn’t a good thing. But let’s not pretend this hasn’t all been done before, either.
Of course it’s been done before, everything has been done before, but he’s still the first in our city, and to my knowledge state. Saying he’s following Banksy’s script to a T is ridiculous, it’d be like saying all pointillism painters follower each other to a T because they all had the same general style, ignoring their actual individual art work.
posted by: cunningham on January 6, 2014 12:46pm
Did anyone see the stencil on the walkway cutting across the green from Temple to the corner of Elm & College? It was a series of mirrored texts, one side expressing some mundane dissatisfaction and the other coming to grips with poverty and prison. I thought it was very striking. Not sure if it was BiP, but if not he may already have a successor.
I hope they make the video publicly available. I couldn’t make it on Saturday and would love to see it. Maybe on Vimeo?
Safe travels BiP, and much gratitude for the inspired and provocative images you’ve left us! I hope there is some way we’ll see your new work, drop us a “postcard” if you can!
I’m glad BiP has sparked some dialog around NH about street art but his/her work isn’t exactly saying anything new or particularly relevant about New Haven. So, safe travels but not a particularly huge loss.
self-righteous, self-aggrandizing, self-important. Good art though, but he should not take himself so seriously.
One of the things I love about New Haven is the presence of so many diverse people, BiP being one of them.
Let’s celebrate the talented, mission driven, quirky souls among us.
We need them to shake things up and challenge our complacency.
Atwater - for a second I thought you were referring to the organizer and the audience!
posted by: Nhv.Org on January 9, 2014 10:01pm
Maybe the Taipei piece is coming from this article about how poverty is stamped into our DNA. Colors and themes look similar.