Nearly three years ago, I was introduced to the street artist known as Believe in People.
I had seen a few of Believe in People’s pieces around campus — the lost dog on Hillhouse, Geronimo on Skull and Bones — and was intrigued by the playful air of his works. Finally, in an April 2011 WEEKEND cover (“Meet Believe in People”), the graffiti artist granted a sit-down session with the News and talked a bit about what motivated him to make art.
When reading journal entries written by a deceased childhood friend, Believe in People discovered the recurring theme that humanity’s professed ideals were “all fake.” One line from his friend’s journal particularly resonated with him; it read: “I don’t believe in people.” The artist’s name and works serve as a response to that sentiment.
I generally support the notion of street art, so I was already inclined to support his work. But after reading about the artist’s motives and vision, I started to view Believe in People (who tends to go by BiP these days) through an even more positive lens. Instead of tagging walls across Yale and New Haven merely to provoke authority, BiP seems to be challenging viewers to strive towards something better. From the inside of a Linsly-Chittenden classroom, where his graffiti depicted a student struggling with a career in finance, to the streets of New Haven itself, where he stenciled 23 uplifting phrases on curbsides, BiP’s work seems to match the mantra his name implies.
His most recent work continues this trend. On April Fools’ Day, the artist attached a fake wooden plaque to the Yale University Art Gallery that jokingly commemorated “the spot on which Sam Dilvan used a felt marker to scrawl the minimalist yet emotionally complex tag, ‘Boobz.’”
By all accounts, I expected the University to react negatively to such an act. There’s precedent: Understandably, virtually every one of BiP’s pieces produced on campus has been swiftly removed and condemned by Yale’s administration. I didn’t have much of a reason to think this time around would be any different, and at first, when YUAG officials quickly removed the artwork, I thought I was correct.
But instead of throwing the piece straight into the trash, the YUAG did something unexpected with the wooden plaque: two days later, they displayed BiP’s art in an exhibit of its own, installing it along with explanatory text in a case outside the gallery for the day. They also announced that they would hold onto the piece for two weeks for the artist to claim; if it went unclaimed, they would donate it to a city community arts organization ARTspace for auction.
This move might not sound revolutionary, but the YUAG’s actions represent a sharp pivot from Yale’s previous reactions to BiP’s work. In a statement about BiP two years ago to the New Haven Independent, University Properties director Abigail Rider said that aside from any possible artistic value, the University sees all graffiti as an act of vandalism that should be “remove[d] quickly and completely.”
Now, though, the YUAG has demonstrated support for street art by preserving and exhibiting BiP’s April Fools’ Day piece. BiP thinks so too: In a statement released on Twitter, BiP acknowledged that last week was “the first time an Ivy League institution (never mind a museum) has shown support for illegal graffiti.” In other words, the YUAG more than rose to the challenge issued by BiP.
This is an admirable response by the YUAG, and one that deserves our praise. By refusing to take the easy, traditional path and merely destroy BiP’s work, the YUAG has found a way to lend support to street art while still making an effort to hew to the University’s policies regarding graffiti. This is an acceptable compromise that, as BiP put it, “prove[s] they truly believe in the ideas that nourish art.”
True, the YUAG still has a few final questions to answer, including whether it will honor BiP’s public request that the plaque not be auctioned, which the artist says would corrupt his work. We must also question how the gallery might have acted were the art less easily removable, such as one of BiP’s traditional graffiti pieces.
Even so, we cannot deny that the YUAG’s decision represents a step towards broader acceptance of street art — a small gesture that, just maybe, makes me believe in people a little bit more.
Nick Defiesta is a senior in Berkeley College and a former city editor for the News. His columns run on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .