Framing a vandal

“BOOBZ.” Not a word that someone strolling around campus would expect to see affixed to the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG). But on Tues., April 1, a plaque engraved with this text mysteriously appeared on the steps of the YUAG: “NATIONAL REGISTER OF HISTORIC PLACES. This plaque marks the site on which Sam Dilvan used a felt marker to scrawl the minimalist yet emotionally complex tag ‘BOOBZ,’ preceding such works of artistic genius as ‘ASS BUTT’ and ‘GILF MAGNET.’ This oc- curred during his oft-celebrated ‘BALLZ’ period. Although the original is no longer visible, Dilvan’s penchant for using words carelessly throughout his environment remains a guiding force in modern society and culture.”

This piece of street art, created by the New Haven guerilla artist Be- lieve in People, or BiP, as a sort of April Fools’ Joke, challenges its viewer to question assumptions of artistic value, permanence, and the intersec- tion of high and low culture. In a city whose resources and spaces are dominated by an institution of higher learning, it seems to say: there’s something to be learned from the streets, too.


“Sam Dilvan” is an anagram for vandalism—the medium of all the works that BiP has created around New Haven, and, more recently, Brooklyn, Detroit and Hong Kong. His pieces, spray-paint and stencil murals that include portraits of Geronimo (pasted to the wall of Skull and Bones’ tomb), a young man aiming a spray paint gun at his head, and Anne Frank (on a Crown Street building), began popping up overnight around New Haven beginning in Oct. 2010. Though BiP has successfully kept his identity hidden throughout this time, he has leaked small bits of his biography along the way: he allegedly graduated from Princeton in 2007 and pursued a “2-percenter” job in finance before a near-death experience led him into graffiti—tagging the institutions he had once been inside.

Robert Storr, Dean of the Yale Art School, points out that BiP “is not a nontraditional artist, and he’s working in a known tradition.” In many ways, Storr is right. In the 1970s, graffiti plastering subway cars prolifer- ated across New York City, a symbol of blight and decline. It represented the reign of the unsanctioned—a raising of the middle finger to the eco- nomic, political, and social institutions of the city. But while the spray painters of this era wanted to impart permanence in their transgression of these boundaries, a new decade marked a turning point for this phe- nomenon. In 1981, Keith Haring, who started his career with spray paint cans in subway tunnels, displayed his work at the Shafrazi Gallery in New York. Seven years earlier, Tony Shafrazi had painted the words “KILL LIES ALL” over Picasso’s Guernica at MOMA in political protest. The culture of vandalism effectively came full circle in this moment: one convicted vandal sanctioned another vandal as an artist worthy of legalized, high- brow public exposure. Haring’s work began to sell at high prices. Today, 30 years later, I carry around a Keith Haring water bottle.

The BiP plaque, coincidentally mounted on April Fools’ Day, has taken a similarly circular journey through the New Haven art scene. When the YUAG discovered the plaque, they removed it; it was illegally defacing property. Almost immediately, however, the museum’s director, Jock Reynolds, recognized an opportunity
for thoughtful dialogue: he had the plaque reinstalled in a glass case in front of the gallery the following Thursday. The move transformed and legitimized the piece as public art (rather than street art or vandalism). Finally, the Gallery decided that they would give the artist two weeks to claim the piece, or they would offer it to the annual auction of Artspace, a local, non-profit gallery. BiP, whose sustained anonymity calls to mind the internationally renowned Banksy, protested. The New Haven Independent quoted BiP as saying, “I loved this piece. It might be the first half-decent piece of art I’ve made. But I would rather see it destroyed than corrupted. It’s not morally justifiable to auction a piece of public art.” Perry Obee, an employee of the the YUAG and a New Haven artist, offered an explanation for BiP’s reaction. “The illicit nature of street art adds a sense of immediacy and importance to the artist’s message.”

Enter Artspace, which seems to occupy an intermediate on the spec- trum between Yale and New Haven street art. Sarah Fritchey, Artspace’s visual arts coordinator and gallery manager agreed with the principle of keeping graffiti art away from the gallery space. This story of blurred (or desecrated) lines between vandalism, cultural capitalism, and avant- garde art is echoed in the fate of some of Banksy’s work. In an attempt to bring art to the lower and middle classes, he stenciled work on the sides of gas stations. Recognizing an opportunity for profit, several of these gas station owners removed the sides of their buildings and sold them at auc- tion. Artistic intent and artistic value, on both the cultural and monetary ends of the spectrum, frequently get sidelined or ignored.

Here, with BiP, the narrative might be heading in a different direction. After all, Artspace’s mission describes their goal as “to catalyze artistic activities; connect contemporary artists, audiences, and resources; and to enrich art experiences and activate art spaces.” Helen Kauder, the director of Artspace, said, “We are grateful for the gesture the Yale Art Gallery has made, but we have a responsibility to the wishes of an artist. We want to advocate for them in the way that they wish.” BiP has offered Artspace a replica, and Artspace will not auction off the piece.


This controversy came at a timely moment for Artspace as they plan an exhibit that will open this summer, called “Vagaries of the Commons.” The exhibit will pose the question of who has access to what resources, focusing on public space. While at quick glance the YUAG represents the traditional, conservative “institution” in opposition to the open, accessible presence of street art, the YUAG may doesn’t necessar- ily fit the bill as a target for BiP’s satirical work. Free and open to the public, the gallery functions as a teaching museum. In fact, its mission overlaps with that of Artspace, which both emphasize an educational goal. Perhaps, at the end of the day, BiP’s plaque is testament that

the amorphous artist really does “believe in people” and their ability to take an April Fools’ joke just
seriously enough.

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