Believe in People posed as a student, followed some Yalies into Jonathan Edwards College’s Taft Library and climbed out into the Sculpture Garden. He scaled the scaffolding on the back of the Yale University Art Gallery and onto the roof of Skull and Bones.
From 5:20 to 6:00 a.m., he tweeted his progress in affixing several paper images to the tomb using a glue he had made of wheat paste. As the sun rose that Sunday morning, Nov 14, he drank an orange soda and looked at his handiwork: a colorful Native American with a feathered headdress clinging to one of the tomb’s side walls, and the words “Believe” “In” “People” pasted across the portico.
He climbed down the scaffolding and exited through JE, once again passing unnoticed and anonymous as he does every time he walks by one of his pieces.
“I do what I do for several reasons,” explains the artist who calls himself Believe in People, or BiP for short. “Some are not really worth going into, but on whole, my primary motivation is that I want to change the way people interact with their environment in a positive way. Seeing even a faint smile on a viewer is profoundly satisfying. Knowing that you were able to communicate a thought or a feeling…It makes everything worth it.”
Since October of last year, the spray-painted work of Believe in People, or BiP, has appeared on several walls around Yale’s campus. The first to be discovered showed a boy hanging a “Lost Dog” sign on a side door of Dunham Lab. Across a driveway from the door, the small dog in question was painted behind a short concrete wall. Months later, the two paintings were replaced by one stenciled image on the same door: the boy playing with his dog, now found.
Those initial pieces prompted the Yale community to suspect that the famed street artist Banksy, whose identity is unknown, was gracing the campus with his presence. The works, mostly done with spray paint and stencils, were reminiscent of Banksy’s whimsical style. But as months passed and more pieces appeared — by Mory’s, a boy stepping through a brick wall into the sky; by the Jock Walk, a raccoon and then a bird; by Partners Café, a large portrait of Anne Frank, and numerous other pieces — speculators concluded that this was the work of a local artist.
Last weekend, Believe in People granted an exclusive interview to the News. Not only that, but he invited this reporter to join him as he painted. What follows is an account of that Saturday night.
Last week, the WEEKEND editors informed me that I had been chosen to write a story.
“Believe in People has agreed to cooperate for a YDN piece about him/her/them by taking a reporter of his/her/their choosing with him/her/them on one of his/her/their spray-painting adventures,” they wrote in an email. “Believe in People’s representation, Neils, has told us that they are set on you as that reporter, even though you’ve graduated.”
It was true — I graduated from Yale in 2009, and while I did write for and edit the News during my time at here, I quite honestly never expected to do it again. The opportunity to write creatively once again was welcome, though I was confused and skeptical when I first heard from the editors.
All they could explain was that BiP had specified through his agent Neils that he would only grant an interview if he could pick the reporter, and he had chosen me. Without me, the interview would not happen. Later, Neils explained that I was chosen for two reasons: my status as an alumnus, so I would be socially removed from the Yale community, discouraging leaks of BiP’s identity, and because I live in New York, close enough to travel to New Haven.
It was strange, but I was intrigued.
Parts of the night’s plan did inspire some trepidation — Neils informed me through e-mail that a taxi would pick me up at 8:00 p.m. Saturday in front of the News building to take me to BiP for the interview and to observe his artistic process. My phone would be taken from me and only returned at the end of the meeting so I would not be tempted to tell others of my whereabouts or take pictures of BiP. I was not to take any recording equipment whatsoever with me.
But could they provide proof that it really was BiP and his agent who were going to whisk me away in a taxi and take away my phone? They could — Neils sent a PDF file with 20 pages, each with a small piece of the artwork used to create the stencil for the “Found Dog” piece. It was convincing. I told my editors that I would text them to let them know I was okay before my phone was taken, and I would call at 1:00 a.m. to tell them that I had returned safely.
At 8:00 p.m. Saturday night, I am standing in front of the News building, huddled under my umbrella trying to stay as dry as possible as a strong wind blew torrential rain almost horizontally around me. I hope BiP has a plan for dealing with the elements.
A black and yellow cab pulls up and I get in. There is only the driver, who knows where to go. He drives in a roundabout way through the fierce rain, depositing me after 10 minutes on a quiet street somewhere near East Rock. Another taxi is waiting. A bearded man who looks to be in his mid-30s opens the door and steps out. He introduces himself as Believe in People’s agent Neils and says he will take me to where BiP is waiting to give the interview. Nodding a little hesitantly, I get into his car.
A few minutes later, a time during which Neils says absolutely nothing, we pull up to a clapboard house. I can’t read the street signs through the pouring rain. Neils and I hurry to the porch, where a light turns on as we approach. The front door opens, and the man who calls himself Believe in People asks me to come inside.
BiP is telling me a story about one of his pieces, the boy walking into the sky outside Mory’s. As a general rule, he doesn’t visit his paintings after he finishes them because of the risk of getting caught at the “scene of the crime,” depending on your opinion. But he enjoys seeing people’s reactions to his work, and since it is so often dark outside when he paints, he wanted to see for himself how the piece turned out.
“There was this hipster guy taking a picture of the piece from different angles,” BiP says, stirring a pot of wheat paste glue on the stove. We are in the kitchen of the house he shares, and I am sitting at a table.
“I wanted to take some pictures for my own, and the guy starts explaining to me the history of street art. He’s reading all these things into the piece, saying this guy was trying to communicate this and that. He was telling me all about my piece. I deadpanned, ‘Wow, I had no idea he was trying to do that,’ and he said ‘Yeah, I’m pretty knowledgeable about this whole street art thing.’”
BiP looks at me and laughs. “I said, ‘Thanks for teaching me about street art,’ and walked away.”
It is a poignant moment of anonymity that must feel intensely familiar to BiP, who walks unrecognized as a street artist among the people of New Haven and beyond. I was surprised when he opened the front door — I was expecting someone more intense, someone with baggy pants or unkempt hair. Instead, I found a younger version of the dad from “Fun with Dick and Jane.”
He is wearing khaki pants pulled high and belted. His polo shirt looks like it’s from Kmart. He wears Buddy Holly glasses and a serious expression. He is tall and rail-thin, and I can’t quite tell what his age is, although I would guess he’s somewhere in his twenties. Only his loafers give him away as a street artist—they are spattered with paint.
He was almost shy as he held the door for me and asked if I wanted anything to drink. I had a hard time believing that this was the mysterious lawbreaker who had tagged Skull and Bones and property around New Haven. I did not feel threatened, even less so because a group of his housemates were around. They look to be grad-student age.
We talk as he finishes cooking the wheat paste and assembling the various parts for tonight’s piece. He is reticent and doesn’t go off on tangents. He also shakes his head when I ask for any personal details, for the most part.
BiP, who counts among his favorite artists the graffiti writers Blek le Rat, Espo, and Read More Books, does reveal a little about his past. When I ask him about the origins of the name Believe in People, he hesitates, then speaks softly.
“One of my childhood friends died and his mom gave me his old journals to read though,” he says. “One of the recurring themes in the journals was that the ideals that humanity professed were all fake — just, I don’t know, people would do whatever necessary to justify their behavior. There was one line in particular where he said, ‘I don’t believe in people.’ So in some ways the name was an answer to that. I read that line and immediately thought, “Okay, I’m Believe in People.’”
As we talk, he tapes together the printouts of his piece, then meticulously cuts the outline of the central figure. It is a young boy, depicted in black and white, holding a spray paint can to his head like a gun. His mouth is open; he could be screaming in agony or in relief. BiP explains that the rest of the piece will be painted at the site.
“Graffiti—and street art by an extension of that—are very much part of an aesthetic battle,” BiP explains as we get ready to leave. “It’s a battle for what kind of environment we’ll live in as a society, it’s part of a cultural dialogue.”
He references people who ask graffiti artists why they can’t just paint on a normal canvas, or in preapproved spots.
“For starters, some pieces can’t be done in another medium,” he states. “The texture, spaces, age, location, etc. all give walls character to interact with. Some pieces, like that lost dog piece, couldn’t exist. Secondly, the act of changing your environment even in a small way is powerful.” He pauses. “Knowing someone risked their liberty to show you something is powerful.”
And what about that liberty? What about the police, who have stated in previous interviews with the News that they investigate individual artists who commit acts of vandalism on University and city property?
“When the cops arrest me or chase me up, it’s not personal, they’re just doing their jobs well,” said BiP. “After all, graffiti is not a game between me and the cops—it’s an interaction between me and the environment.”
Have they caught you before? I ask. Never in New Haven, he says.
Another taxi takes us back toward Yale — although BiP is quick to point out that his pieces aren’t just on campus. The rain is now worse than ever. BiP has a backpack full of paint cans and the black and white drawing. He carries the stencil, carefully cut with a sharp tool and protected in a plastic bag.
The taxi drops us off by a bar popular with Yale students. BiP instructs me to follow him closely, then takes off purposefully through a parking lot, crouching to go through a hole in a chain-link fence. He skids down a muddy, trash-littered slope into a canal bed. Generally not in use, tonight it is filled with water and mud ankle-deep. I land with a splash, glad for my waterproof boots.
BiP wades away quickly, heading to a dark tunnel blocked off by another fence. He explains that he put the lock on the fence to ensure that we won’t be disturbed. I notice that the combination is 1776. If there is any trouble tonight, he warns me, I should hide in one of the crevices on the side of the tunnel.
The lock clicks open, he pulls the fence, and we are in the tunnel. BiP is comfortable here — he says he comes to this place often. It is a private space for him, a space where he can experiment. Tonight’s piece certainly has a darker feel than what he has done around Yale. The whole structure seems ripe for demolition.
“I only paint on either run-down surfaces that aren’t being taken care of, or surfaces that I know can cheaply be cleaned,” BiP told me earlier. “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, but when I see other graffiti artists do it, I don’t have a problem with it.”
The Native American on Skull and Bones was wheat paste and paper. Most of his other pieces around Yale have been spray paint and stencils. Tonight’s piece is both wheat paste and paint.
“Wheat paste is a lot less time-consuming than stencils, but I like stencils better,” he explains. “Honestly, I see them as different tools in the spectrum of the medium. Sometimes I freehand. Whatever has to be done, based on the wall.”
BiP starts by using a roller to apply the wheat paste to the wall in broad, thorough strokes. Next he picks up the paper image and carefully sticks it to the wall, smoothing the individual sheets of paper and the edges. Then he picks up a can of green paint.
As he shakes it, the telltale rattle is jarring in the tunnel, already filled with the sound of rushing water. The scene before me of this serious young man using a rebellious medium to create a work of art in this desolate place is curiously incongruous.
In part, it’s this conception of graffiti and street art that BiP says he wants to address with his work and his relationship with the people who see it.
A few months ago, he silk-screened several t-shirts and mailed them to members of the Yale community. They were his followers on Twitter, he explains, and their Twitter handles made them easily identifiable.
“When most people see graffiti, the thought of doing something like that is so far from their lifestyle that it’s hard for them to imagine a real human doing it,” he mused. “They either imagine it magically appearing there or they imagine some sort of caricature of inner city youth. So the shirts were kind of a way of humanizing myself.”
BiP lifts the can of green paint to the wall and, using the stencil, which is riddled with oddly shaped holes, he brings color to the black and white boy. Using green, blue, yellow and pink, he creates an explosion of spray paint brain matter coming out of the boy’s head.
As he paints, he is a man transformed. Any doubts about his identity are laid to rest: this is clearly his natural element. I stay quiet while he paints because I feel like I am intruding.
It is 1:30 a.m. and we have been in the tunnel for almost two hours when he steps back and says the piece is finished. I have already requested permission to use my phone to tell the editors I am alive. BiP looks at the piece with a critical eye.
“You have a specific dream and vision for each piece, and what you do almost always falls short of that, but with enough practice and preparation you can just barely fall short,” he says.
The finished piece is finally disturbingly visible when BiP illuminates it with the flash from his camera. The black and white boy, anguished and explosive, has blown his vividly colored brains all over the dirty wall. He will continue to do so until another artist paints over him or the tunnel is demolished.
Before we leave, he shows me a piece on the wall of a yellow space helmet, signed “Kid.” Kid paints all around the Northeast, he says, and it gives him a feeling of kinship to know that he was also in this tunnel, using the same walls as a canvas.
With those words, we slosh out of the tunnel back into the rain. This time, BiP leaves the fence unlocked. When we make it back up to the street, he doesn’t linger. Neils will send me the pictures we took with his camera, and he looks forward to the article. With that, he is gone.
BiP tells a story of a time he was painting in New York and a cop showed up. He was thrown to the ground and handcuffed. Then, he says, the cop paused to look at the painting, an outline of a little boy with a paintbrush. There was silence for two minutes, an excruciating eternity as BiP lay on the ground. Then without warning, the cop took the handcuffs off and helped him up. All right, here’s the deal, the officer said. I didn’t see you paint this and never come back.
“I think he connected with the piece…at least that’s what I arrogantly hope to think,” BiP says. “That’s breaking down the system, when you get to the point that a cop is on your side. It suggests that our collective visual aesthetics are slowly changing.”
There will always be those who disagree — the University that has to have a handyman repaint a door, the secret society that has to hire a power washer to eradicate all traces of a paper Geronimo. And then there will be those who look for new pieces as they take their usual walks to class, hoping for the next chapter in the ongoing dialogue, alongside people around New Haven and beyond.
Kimbery Chow graduated in 2009. She was an editor for the News.