Believe In People: Don’t Believe Your Eyes
by Thomas MacMillan | Jan 24, 2013 9:13 am
Posted to: Arts & Entertainment, Visual Arts, Downtown
“SUPA-THUG” painted his name in big block letters on a wall overlooking a State Street parking lot.
Oh wait, it wasn’t painted by a real super-thug, but by a cute little girl.
Oh wait ... she’s not real either.
The giant tag, the cute little girl—they’re both created by New Haven’s resident guerrilla street artist, a man known only as Believe In People, or BiP.
They appeared in downtown New Haven this week.
In a brazen daylight caper, BiP and two other guys painted the tag and a trompe l’oeil stencil of the little girl on a wall visible from a parking lot near the corner of State and Chapel streets.
The piece is the second large-scale BiP painting to appear in just over a month. BiP painted an enormous yellow hand on the side of lumber yard building last month, just over the border in West Haven. The latest work is the most visible piece BiP has done in town since his mural of Anne Frank on the side of Partners Cafe on Crown Street.
The “SUPA-THUG” piece deals with some themes BiP has tackled in previous work: shifting identities, things not being what they seem, meta-commentary on street art. It also brings to mind the work of international street artist Banksy, to whom BiP has often been compared.
“SUPA-THUG” was unveiled on Monday after BiP and two other men apparently worked on it over the weekend. Frank (pictured), who works in the parking lot and declined to give his last name, said three men showed up on Friday.
Frank said he helped the men pull down a fire-escape staircase. They got up on the roof of the building and attached two-by-fours, then hung a huge blue tarp over the wall, Frank said. They had scaffolding and ladders. On Monday, they took the tarp down and revealed the piece, which has BiP’s initials in the lower left.
“It’s all right,” Franks said of the painting. “Whatever it means, I don’t know. There no word at all with S-U-P-A. It’s not in the dictionary. ... Well, it’s an eye-catcher, that’s all.”
Frank said he figured the men must have been doing the work legally. “They would have had to get permission from the owner.”
The owner, Chris Nicotra, said they didn’t have permission: “Frank just assumed that they were there to do work for me.”
Nicotra, reached by phone in Florida, said he started getting calls about the new painting on Tuesday. “I was quite confused at first, then somebody sent me a cell phone picture.”
“I think it looks pretty cool,” he said. Nicotra said he was reserving judgment until he sees the painting in person, but will likely not paint over it, as long it’s not offending anyone.
“I’ve heard about this quote unquote mystery artist,” Nicotra said. “It never crossed my mind that he would attack one of my properties.”
“I guess from the scuttlebutt that I’ve heard, he’s an up and coming artist,” he said. “So that’s kind of cool. ... I’m not opposed to it. I’m a big supporter of the arts community.”
One woman walking by on Wednesday compared the piece to work by Banksy, which she said she’d seen in Israel. It’s not the first time a comparison has been made between the two pseudonymous artists, and the “SUPA-THUG” piece invites it more than others have. Banksy also works in detailed stencils, and has even featured little girls in dresses in some of his work, like this piece (pictured) from Jerusalem.
People are also noticing how convincingly BiP rendered the paint roller leaning against the wall. BiP took care to paint in a shadow cast by the roller. “What people keep telling me is that the paint roller just looks incredibly real,” said Nicotra.
Ben Berkowitz, who works in a nearby building, said he’s overheard people exclaiming that the artist left his roller behind.
By painting a picture of painting tools, and a fictional painter, BiP sets up a kind of meta-meaning—an invitation to explore the story behind a huge tag like “SUPA-THUG.” In this case, what’s behind it is a little girl with a bow in her hair, no kind of thug at all.
The piece can be seen as a commentary on graffiti art or graffiti culture, a scene in which the toughest tagger might not be all that he seems. Or, obversely, the cutest little girl might harbor a secret identity as a—literally—big-name graffiti writer.
The clash of meanings between text and image recalls Rene Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images.” That painting (pictured) depicts an image of a pipe paired with the sentence, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” French for “This is not a pipe.” All images are illusions, Magritte reminds the viewer. A picture of a pipe is not a pipe.
Maybe all graffiti tags are illusions too. BiP’s “SUPA-THUG” stands “The Treachery of Images” on its head. While Magritte used text to question the meaning of an image, BiP uses an image of a little girl to question the text above her. Ceci n’est pas une super-thug.
But BiP’s painting has even another layer of identity-mystery: This isn’t a super-thug, but it’s also not a little girl either. The piece asks the viewer to question his assumptions about the identity of people who paint illegally on buildings. A question that inevitably leads back to the most basic mystery in BiP’s work: Who is he?
Whoever he is, he may not be what you assume. At least, that’s one message of “SUPA-THUG.”
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How do folks know it was BiP? Is his tag on the painting? (I can’t see it in the photo, unless I’m just missing it.) Was there any sort of communication from BiP to the NHI?
[It’s signed in the lower left. I changed the photo so it shows his initials. Thanks.—TM]
Wow! This guy is amazing, and we’re lucky to have him here. Great ongoing coverage. I really appreciate it. Its not every day that we have a chance to discuss the implications of street art here on NHI. Needless to say, this piece has brightened an otherwise drab exterior in our downtown. The essential difference between art and architecture, is that a good painting like this one can induce critical thought voluntarily, whereas architecture (especially a monotonous brick wall) tends to influence our thoughts and behaviors unconsciously, and mostly pejoratively. Bad design leads to depression. Good art leads to enlightenment. Of course, its not that we couldn’t combine good design with good art in New Haven. But, bad designs are hard to fix, they’re more permanent. And, given the prevalence of bad design, I think BiP’s approach may be a good option. I think I’ve said this before, but can we get him a job doing this professionally all over the city and teaching others how to do so?
posted by: William Kurtz on January 24, 2013 1:15pm
I’m beginning to think Thomas MacMillan is BIP’s secret identity.
I would be interested in some discussion/reporting on the legal aspects of BiP’s work. While I enjoy his art, it was, in this case at least, done illegally on someone else’s building. It’s nice that Nicotra seems to like the art, but it is still problematic to be defacing other people’s property. What happens if/when a property owner decides to press charges against him? Is there a way to line up property owners who would like to provide a forum for him, like the building in West Haven that NHI reported on previously?
Really?!? I see a major double-standard in this here city: BiP is lauded as being innovative (um, he’s not—copying Banksy and getting praise is, actually, somewhat ridiculous) and yet other street art, produced by artists who have been in the game for 10+ years, is RARELY highlighted in the NHI, especially not in a positive light. Either you support it or you don’t. I don’t get how you can get all upset about one type of street art and then praise another. And don’t give me the “Well, BiP’s work is real art; the other stuff is not.” That’s an OPINION.
Let’s be clear—I don’t have a problem with street art. I have a problem with the NHI’s constant press of ONE street artist in this town and completely ignoring the rest. Why not highlight actually INNOVATIVE art, instead of something that is a copycat of an international artist?
Okay so the giant drippy neon hand BiP painted in West Haven was copying Banksy? Really? No offense Whatsername but it sounds like you never got enough attention for your work. At this point, whether you like him or not, BiP has done more for New Haven’s physical appearance than any other individual artist. And without asking for a cent. That’s why he gets the attention he gets. It’s pretty simple to understand, and you can either continue to whine about it, or you can step your game up and force New Haven to recognize you the way he has.
Lol…that’s funny. Not a street artist, tagger, graffiti artist or aerosol artist.
I don’t have beef with street art, dude. I have beef with unbalanced press.
And one comment in the NHI comment section doesn’t constitute whining. I’ll refrain from showing you whining.
This? “BiP has done more for New Haven’s physical appearance than any other individual artist.” Okay, your opinion. Just like I expressed mine.
If having an opinion is drinking haterade, then I guess I’m well-hydrated.
Okay fair. I wasn’t trying to be rude, I just get annoyed when people criticize without offering a solution. I also have a soft spot for BiP because of an interaction I had with one of his curb phrases.
So why not post some links here of talented artists that deserve attention? It sounds like you know some pretty cool artists that we’d be interested in seeing.
posted by: streever on January 25, 2013 12:19am
What artist are we missing out on who consistently delivers such good work?
I think BIP’s work is amazing. Prima facie, BIPs work stands out as engaging, entertaining, and provocative.
BIP is “copying” Banksy in the same sense that Degas or Monet are “copying” each other. While they use similar technique and medium to capture similar experiences, each has their own individual style and focus.
Well, I have to be fair and own that perhaps I initially commented in a more aggressive way than originally intended. I don’t actually dislike BiP’s work—in fact, I’m amused by how well he pulls off his projects.
@Streamer: True enough about “copying.” I may have over-stated my opinion—I understand that there is a similarity in style and creation between BiP and Banksy that is not necessarily “plagiarism.”
Since I came to New Haven over ten years ago, I have personally been fascinated by the Water Street graffiti—I think what happens there every few months, with the art changing, is pretty amazing. Though I don’t know any of the artists, I feel like they deliver pretty consistently good work. To be honest, I’m not sure if the NHI has ever highlighted them. While not necessarily embodying a clear political message, the staying power of those artists working there (or cadre of artists, as I imagine some that started there don’t work there anymore and new ones have come in) is a credit to New Haven, just as much as BiP.
Riding the Metro North often, I feel like there’s also some great stuff on the rail lines, on old freight cars and in between. And sometimes there are pieces hidden in alleys and such that are interesting, as well. As I am not the best reader of graffiti, I’m not 100% sure I would be able to state names correctly.
So, I withdraw crassness and insult, and simply state—I would love to see all street art get press. Who knows, maybe the Water St artists don’t care about it.
@aswallace: That is amazing. Again, I don’t necessarily know any of these artists personally, but I certainly hope someone takes a look at your offer and takes you up on it. I do want to thank you for creating a venue for this type of art. It is appreciated by those of us who may be just a little too obsessed with street art. =)
My suggestion to put this stuff all over town is open to any artist. I just suggested BiP since he has proven that he’s willing to go big and make people think. That’s my only criteria for a good public project. I’m sure the Water Street guys are willing and able to do the same. The main point is that there’s so much untapped potential in our built environment. There’s literally miles and miles of blank canvas, and dozens and dozens of artists willing to fill it all in. Just look at a city like San Francisco that has embraced street murals. There’s practically one on every corner. That’s what it looks like when a community embraces their artists and allows them to contribute to the built environment. Try to tell me this is not exciting and beautiful. Let’s do this, New Haven:
adding to what HewNaven wrote, Philly’s Mural Arts program is phenomenal - http://muralarts.org - we could definitely do something like that over here.