Graffiti’s Cozy, Feminine Side
By MALIA WOLLAN, Published: May 18, 2011
THE bronze statue of Rocky near the Philadelphia Museum of Art irked Jessie Hemmons. She found the statue too big, too macho and too touristy, so last month Ms. Hemmons, a 24-year-old artist, bombed him. With pinkish yarn.
She calls the act of artistic vandalism “yarn bombing,” adapting a term for plastering an area with graffiti tags.
“Street art and graffiti are usually so male dominated,” Ms. Hemmons said. “Yarn bombing is more feminine. It’s like graffiti with grandma sweaters.”
Yarn bombing takes that most matronly craft (knitting) and that most maternal of gestures (wrapping something cold in a warm blanket) and transfers it to the concrete and steel wilds of the urban streetscape. Hydrants, lampposts, mailboxes, bicycles, cars — even objects as big as buses and bridges — have all been bombed in recent years, ever so softly and usually at night.
It is a global phenomenon, with yarn bombers taking their brightly colored fuzzy work to Europe, Asia and beyond. In Paris, a yarn culprit has filled sidewalk cracks with colorful knots of yarn. In Denver, a group called Ladies Fancywork Society has crocheted tree trunks, park benches and public telephones. Seattle has the YarnCore collective (“Hardcore Chicks With Sharp Sticks”) and Stockholm has the knit crew Masquerade. In London, Knit the City has “yarnstormed” fountains and fences. And in Melbourne, Australia, a woman known as Bali conjures up cozies for bike racks and bus stops.
To record their ephemeral works (the fragile pieces begin to fray within weeks), yarn bombers photograph and videotape their creations and upload them to blogs, social networks and Web sites for all the world to see.
Sometimes called grandma graffiti, the movement got a boost, and a manifesto, in 2009 with the publication of the book “Yarn Bombing: The Art of Crochet and Knit Graffiti,” by Mandy Moore and Leanne Prain, knitters from Vancouver, Canada. It is part coffee-table book, with color photographs of creative bombs, and part tutorial, with tips like wearing “ninja” black to avoid capture.
The book borrows from the vernacular of street graffiti and half-jokingly positions yarn bombing as an illicit alternative for knitters bored making yet another Christmas sweater. It asks readers to get off their rocking chairs and “take back the knit.”
Since the book’s publication, Ms. Prain said, she has been getting dozens of e-mails a week from yarn bombers from as far away as Russia, Morocco and Iran. The last month has been particularly busy ever since a Canadian knitter declared June 11 International Yarn Bombing Day on Facebook.
Three film crews contacted her about making yarn bombing documentaries, and several graduate students e-mailed her about writing theses on the subject.
Many of these people also reached out to Magda Sayeg, a 37-year-old Texan who is considered by many to be the mother of yarn bombing. By her recollection, it started on a slow day in 2005 at Raye, her quirky boutique in Houston. On a lark, she knitted a blue-and-pink cozy for the shop’s door handle, a piece she now calls “alpha.”
Passers-by loved it, stopping to admire her handiwork. “People got out of their cars just to come look at it,” she said.
Next, she knitted what looked like a leg warmer for a stop sign down the street; from there she slowly infiltrated Houston with her stitchery. Within a few years, she had tagged dozens of lampposts and stop signs and assembled a crew of fellow yarn bombers she called Knitta Please.
Soon, Ms. Sayeg was commissioned to do larger projects. Photographs of her pieces spread online, inciting other knitters to take up the budding art form.
Yarn bombing grows out of the larger D.I.Y. movement, which seeks to resurrect traditional handicrafts “more typically associated with grandmothers, like knitting, canning, gardening and even raising chickens,” said Annette DiMeo Carlozzi, a curator at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Tex. In March it commissioned Ms. Sayeg to cover the trunks of 99 trees in front of the museum.
“You see the resurgence of handicrafts in art, too,” Ms. Carlozzi said. “It is part of the appeal of yarn bombing: the surprising juxtaposition of something that is clearly personal, labor-intensive and handmade in an urban, industrial environment.”
Not all artists who use yarn in their work are thrilled with the woolly trend.
“I don’t yarn bomb, I make art,” said Agata Oleksiak, 33, an artist in New York who has been enshrouding humans, bicycles and swimming pools in neon-colored crochet since 2003. Last Christmas Eve, Olek, as she prefers to be called, blanketed the “Charging Bull” statue near Wall Street in a pink and purple cozy, and uploaded a video of it to YouTube. “If someone calls my bull a yarn bomb, I get really upset,” she added.
Olek, whose work has been shown in museums and galleries worldwide, considers yarn bombing to be the trite work of amateurs and exhibitionists.
“Lots of people have aunts or grandmas who paint,” she said. “Do you want to see that work in the galleries? No. The street is an extension of the gallery. Not everyone’s work deserves to be in public.”
Whether yarn bombing is the work of artists or glorified knitters, the view of law enforcement is clear: it is considered vandalism or littering. Still, the police seem to tolerate it. Yarn bombers say they rarely have run-ins with the law. And in the few instances when they are stopped, yarn bombers say, the police are more likely to laugh at them than issue a summons.
Ms. Prain once tried to yarn bomb a sign post in Washington, in front of F.B.I. headquarters. A security guard wearing a bulletproof vest approached her, she said, and demanded that she stop immediately. “Ma’am,” she recalled him saying, “step away with the knitting.”
Still, yarn bombing seems to be having its moment in pop culture. Fortune 500 companies have paid Ms. Sayeg as much as $20,000 to wrap their wares in yarn. Toyota hired her to knit a Prius a Christmas sweater last year for a promotional video. The makers of the Smart car flew her to Rome to wrap a car in what looked like 1970s-inspired throw blankets, and Mini Cooper recently commissioned a similar ad.
Ms. Sayeg has so much work that she closed her shop in 2009, moved to Austin and turned her hobby into a full-time job. Clients have included the Montague Street Business Improvement District in Brooklyn, which paid Ms. Sayeg to knit covers for 69 parking meters, and Insight, an Australian company that sells surfing clothing, which has an ad featuring a scantly clad woman riding a yarn-covered scooter. Last month, Ms. Sayeg wrapped all the heating ducts at the Brooklyn offices of Etsy.com.
Companies seem to be attracted to the retro handcrafted cheeriness of yarn. Toyota chose Ms. Sayeg for the Prius sweater project because her work is “optimistic and community oriented,” Sona Iliffe-Moon, a marketing executive for Toyota, wrote in an e-mail.
Ms. Sayeg now has five assistants to help her knit, which she now does primarily on looms rather than needles to meet the demand.
“In the early years I identified with underground graffiti artists,” she said. “Now the very people I feared I would get in trouble with are the ones inviting me to do this work for them.”