Yarn bombing: You can’t sit with us

Photo by StreetsDept

Conrad Benner of Streets Dept. noted that yarn bombing is probably one of the most verbally attacked forms of street art and in my experience, he’s right. Actually, most of the hate I hear comes from other street artists. Why? As Jason Eppink puts it, “Yarn bombing exemplifies the ‘do it for the photo’ method of street art. There’s a disingenuousness. … It’s bright and colorful for a day, then it looks gross and someone else has to clean it up.” And it’s no beautiful decay, like the withering of wheatpastes or chipping paint. Personally, I always feel a bit uncomfortable with the awareness that someone put in a disproportionate amount of hours to make such a short-lived mess. Yarn bombers, why not document your pieces a week after you put them up (or the places where they had formerly been) and tell us if this was made for the audience that would see it physically?

There is a family-friendly quality to yarn bombing that allows these crafters to feel comfortable putting up work in middle of the day in front of observers. It is relatively low-risk. I assume that the association of this with “street art” and “graffiti” has to be frustrating for painters, writers, wheatpasters and sticker artists who wait until the wee hours of the morning to put up work because they risk being charged with a felony. Let’s repeat that: felony. There is a hierarchy of risk in the world of vandalism and street art is already understood as less risky then straight graffiti. Below both of these would be stickering which despite being regarded as toothless in some circles, can still have you arrested in certain cities. Yarn bombing would probably rank so low in terms of risk that it would fall on a separate page. Illegality does not make a work better or worse (though admittedly the risk factor definitely adds interest), but if the playing fields are not equal for yarn bombers and street artists why should they be classified as one and the same?

Here’s the contradiction: I’ve seen yarn used as a street art medium in ways that I thought were extremely imaginative and visually interesting. Works by Moneyless, Spidertag, and HotTea aren’t any less temporary, any less susceptible to decay (perhaps even more so), or any less legally benign than typical yarn bombing. What makes them different for me? The fact that these artists’ works could be identified in a lineup. Part of what has street artists and street art appreciators writing off the genre completely, as Conrad initially asked, is not the medium but the lack of creativity. A plethora of yarn bombers would like their work to be seen as unique or distinct, as any artist would, but are they putting in the effort in to earn that? Let’s look at a few examples of what most people envision when they envision yarn bombing

Photos by Alona Arobas (top), jimmyhere (middle),  Robert Couse-Baker (left), amy_b (right)

And here are the yarn-wielding street artists previously named.

Hot Tea (top), Moneyless (middle), and Spidertag (bottom)

Point made or need we look further?

Olek had always been one of these artists whom I’d come across frequently but always skimmed over with a sort of neutral reaction, like “That might be cool if yarn bombing were something that was cool.” Then the other day Jonathan LeVine Gallery sent me this video compilation of Olek’s work over the past year. Through the entire video, I was trying to reconcile why I still hate yarn bombing but why Olek was starting to feel like an exception. The reason is that she has moved beyond many of the drawbacks of typical yarn bombing. She has a relatively large body of work and it is not built solely on sweatering trees in different cities. The sheer size of some of her pieces are enough to make even biased observers do a double-take. Olek’s work does not last longer or decay prettier, but like Hot Tea, Moneyless and Spidertag, her personal style is identifiable. Unlike usual yarn bombs which don’t seem to be communicating anything specific, Olek’s work is often blatantly addressing the greater art community. Naturally, I don’t like everything but the versatility in Olek’s work proves that there is colossal room for creativity in this genre.

Yarn bombers, I encourage you to point out any shortcomings in this post, but more importantly I challenge you to be more creative.

Photos by Alona Arobas, amy_b, Hot + Teajimmyhere, MoneylessRobert Couse-Baker, Spidertag and StreetsDept

  • It’s funny to see Olek included in “yarn bombing” since she has aggressively said in interviews that she does not like/associate with this genre.

    I think part of the problem yarn bombers trying to form their own style is how hard it is to attach your work to surfaces, which makes it harder to break out with a “unique style.” A wheatpaste can be made basically any size or shape and put on a wall, the same can be said with spraypaint. Some artists, like Moneyless and Spidertag, have found ways to subvert this with yarn by using anchors.

    I don’t even know where to start with that Jason Eppink quote.

  • Well that’s got to be some of the best evidence supporting Caroline’s case that I’ve heard: The genre is so ridiculous that even Olek, who I imagine could be considered the queen of yarn bombing if she so chose, has tried to distanced herself from it.

    Try as she might to avoid the phrase, Olek is an inspiration to yarn bombers (like Ishknits – http://www.ishknits.com/ ) and is considered a yarn bomber by pretty much anyone who is familiar with the concept and hasn’t heard her rant against the label. But, if Olek is a yarn bomber, she’s definitely a step above most of them. Maybe that’s why she’s tried to distance herself?

    Have you got any links to interviews where to talks about this? I’d be curious to read her reasons for not liking the term/genre.

  • RJ, not the video I saw, but here is an excerpt from an interview found here: http://blog.globalstreetart.com/post/18601391833/an-accidental-interview-with-olek

    “So, how do you feel about the yarn bombing movement?” Olek looked at me like I’d just wiped my dick on her crocheted carpet. “My work is conceptual. I’m not interested in sitting down crocheting over cups of tea. This is my life. I’m an artist.”

    However, I think that by doing repeating patterns in the same colors all the time she is working herself into a corner in her own way. The patterns that other yarn bombers create naturally through variegated yarns look very similar to the ones that she creates with separate balls of yarn. For someone who is trying to not be a part of that movement she sure is emulating it a lot.

  • john t.

    I think it´s easy to see that The big three (Hottea, Spidertag, Moneyless) do or did graffiti in the past or present. They are not old bored ladies…

  • john t.

    part of yarn bombers are artist, part are decorativers…that´s the main difference

  • There are so many shortcomings in this post..

    On creativity: I guess you just didn’t see there are different levels of formal technical quality to yarnbombing just as there is to graffiti. How many tags and throwups are there that have no ”creativity” to it? You have to aknowledge a regular tree cosy is just a way to express oneself in the public space with a different medium than spraypaint or sharpie. I think if you look through, Yarnbombing movement has produced some really impressive installations.

    On style: Yes, Hottea spidertag and company have distinct styles alright. But if you think all of the knits look alike, you sound like those regular people saying all graffiti looks the same. Maybe you just don’t like textile art and that’s ok. but then please just say it’s not your favorite medium of expression, don’t try to argument yarnbombing is not at good as other types of street art. Like in your examples, you say it’s really easy to tell which one is more creative? I think it’s rather a choice of taste towards design rather than craft. Don’t get me wrong I think it’s ultra cool to use yarn to create something you could say more modern because more design-ish, but it’s not better per se, or more creative.

    Also, artists like Olek that do yarnbombing (or any other type of commissionned street art for that matter) as a career will obviously have more time and money to create more elaborate pieces, that’s just so obvious you can’t pass by that fact.

    For the decay part, well, I feel akward with your arguments. Maybe you are right that it ages not as well as paint or wheatpaste but it’s a lot easier to take off anyway.. And acrylic bombs stay bright pretty long, at least a couple of months, so…

    Lastsly, I’m sad to see you forgot to aknowledge the feminist aspect of yarnbombing. Reviving a centuries old feminine craft is a way to reevaluate womens past and highlight our heritage. Just for that, I think yarnbombing kicks ass. It’s just fortunate for the girls who do it to not be pursued by the police. Let not the repressive system be the judge of what’s cool and what’s not.

  • agreed on your last thought completely!
    Besides, someone who says that to me is just so elitist it make my stomach ache… seriously… ”I’m an artist, not you” ? come one… 21st century here

  • EXACTLY!!!!! That is my main problem. That she is discounting decorative arts as a fine art and putting herself as greater than because her work is conceptual. I think that this is an excellent post though and a great forum for discussion on the topic.

  • Caroline I could write a love letter to you about this comment. You know it is way easier to cover an entire building when you have assistants and funds to do said work. It takes hours to do a small 1 foot by 1 foot section, let alone entire people and places.

    Also, what bugs me about Olek is that she is appropriating work from these past feminist artists and claiming that she has nothing to do with them. Before Olek crocheted an entire room of texts, for example, another fiber artist had done the EXACT SAME THING with knitting love letters in the late 70’s.

  • Agreed. You don’t need to be conceptual to be considered an artist. There is a difference between art and craft though, although I think it’s naive to say that any instance “art” is better than any instance of “craft.”

  • You’re right that I can’t tell one crochet method from another and I doubt Caroline can either, but can you tell apart the four examples of typical yarn bombing that Caroline put up? Can you look at those works and say “Oh, that’s work by W, X, Y, and Z?” There are different methods of cutting stencils and different levels of proficiency, but it’s more than stencil cutting technique that separates Banksy from Faile or Mr. Brainwash.

    The feminist angle bugs me a bit, in part because I think it puts women in a corner. I hope this is not what you mean, but I get the sense when I read claims like that that yarn bombers women SHOULD yarn bomb because it is feminine. Why should women have to do stuff that is traditionally feminine if it is inferior to what they could be doing if we take gender out of the equation? Swoon is a fantastic street artist with a feminine touch to her work. As are Miso and Aiko. And Lady Pink broke into the boys club of subway graffiti and was so good that men who thought women couldn’t write claimed that her pieces were painted by men. And of course, the beauty of street art is that gender does not or at least should not play a huge role, since the work is done somewhat anonymously. The first time I wrote about Fefe, I naively called her a man just because most street artists are men. Stupid mistake on my part. She’s another fantastic female street artist who may have a feminine angle to her work, but she doesn’t let her gender define her. That said, I’m a man and I guess in this context also The Man, so I am maybe not the best person to speak to this point.

  • Sure there are variations of knit/crocheted pieces. I could acknowledge the differences in colors, flowers/no flowers, and patterns and call all of these explorations within a field that I do not like.
    From the street art perspective, I am not as interested in these variations because I am first judging a piece as a whole. Yes, you are right in that I notice graffiti hand styles. But these details only became apparent to me when I found a personal connection with them. Coming from a background in crocheting, you are predisposed to notice details of knitting. People will walk by graffiti and think “This is garbage”. Your assumption with yarn bombing here is that people will say “But look at the technique!”

  • @RJ: I was not really talking about crochet methods to talk about variety. In yarnbombing, styles of pieces also vary in their use of colours, shape, and the messages vary depending on the targeted items to wrap, and location, just like any other type of street art. And by the way yes I can tell the difference in technique in those four works. The first is crochet, the second (knitta please) is knitting machine, the third is hand knit (streetcolor) and the fourth (knitta please) has different techniques. I can also tell the difference between stencil styles and I can tell when it’s classical NY wild style and when it’s something else… I don’t think thought that this makes a point.

    1- textile is not inferior to other mediums! Geez, we are not in the sixties anymore. The hierarchy between ‘high art’ and craft was mainly created to ‘put women in a corner’ like you say, because craft was what was accessible to women in the past, they were not allowed to become artists.

    2- Never in a million years will I force girls to knit. That would recreate the patriarcal enforcement on domesticating women… But Third Wave Feminism is about self-determination. This means that if we reappropriate a medium that was associated with domestic oppression, it is in order to empower ourselves. Also, like I said, it is honoring the traditions of hundreds of women who were poorly evaluated for great texile works produced.
    Getting up next to other forms of street art and graffiti with textile to me is feminist in that way. Of course girls can choose whatever type of medium they please, that’s obvious. But to me you just said it yourself, people tend to think street art is done by men, and is also mostly really done by men. Yarnbombing tries to rebalance things a little. It says: hey! girls and grannies are also out there getting up with their styles. That being said, I would be unfoncortable if girls would only be doing yarnbombing or gender-defining art like you say. Thank god we have artists like Swoon and Faith 47.

    But do you know, Lady Pink, what she had to go through before getting respect for her work? And wasn’t she also one of the terribly rare female writers? We can’t hide the graffiti subculture is terribly machist. Street art is different but it is still debalance in terms of male/female presence, and it’s not like girls can’t handle or don’t have the talent, that everyone agrees. I think street art doesn’t have to be gender defining, youre right. But it can also be political and put to light the patriarchal influences in our urban cultures.

    All that being said, I know some yarnbombers out there think very differently from me and dislike the association of yarnbombing to its graffiti roots or the feminist aspect of it. They are just bored old ladies like Caroline said. I don’t really like them either.

    @Caroline: I didn’t get your comment at all, sorry.

  • 1. Olek is a hack. When she talks about “not everyone having a right to show their work in the street” it is the antithesis of a street artist, so I would hope no street artist would support her. 2. The fact I feel its ok to yarnbomb during the day is a reflection to me that the powers that be consider a white female using knitting for street art as silly and something that shouldn’t be taken seriously as any kind of statement. 3. I love what happens when the knitting starts to fall apart; your description of one form of art falling apart being more beautiful than another is simply your preference being touted as some kind of reality. 4. There’s a lot of street artists that dislike like shit that other people do, and there are a lot of street artists I get along with (and don’t true writers hate the term street artists? And now street artists are hating yarnbombers?) 5. Haters gonna hate.

  • Why do feminists have to do work that is typically masculine or even just standard status quo to be considered feminist? Why can’t she knit or sew and still be considered feminist? It’s not feminist because its knitting. It’s feminist because its women. And it’s not only women that do it.

  • You just named the only men who use yarn.

  • This article reflects a limited perspective, describing yarnbombing through the lens of established ideas about what things are and how they should be. men and women have historically had very different experiences of developing as “conceptual” artists (and different experiences receiving constructive criticism in many areas) and the movement is a step in a direction toward balancing a skewed culture, but its in its infancy and to bash it before it grows is disrespectful to anyone who wants to try something different from what the established culture does. To mention two or three female street artists as some kind of defense to women’s involvement in this culture is like mentioning that there are two black guys that work in your office; it’s ignorant. And it’s especially damning for a female to belittle other women trying to explore their potential role in a new culture with an old medium, all while supporting an equally offensive female artist who thrives on putting other women down to elevate herself (and p.s. olek would only be considered the queen of yarnbombing to anyone who doesn’t know shit about yarnbombing). It’s frankly disheartening that you would show a woman sewing a piece onto a tree to prove a point about the medium’s frivolousness, while showing work by men to prove when using yarn is REALLY art. This is the same old shit, except this time its through some redheaded mouth.

  • Feminist artists can use whatever medium they want. They can be knitters or wheatpasters or stencils or whatever else and still be feminists. It’s not really an issue for me of masculine or feminine so much as it is about what I think is interesting on the street and I don’t tend to find yarnbombing interesting. Sometimes though, I hear the argument that props should be given to yarn bombing because it is feminist and hear undertones that feminist street artists have to yarnbomb. That’s what I’m taking issue with and why I brought up those feminist artists in traditionally more masculine mediums.

  • Street art and grafitti are ephemeral. Period. They live and then they die. It’s important to do work that lasts for a few hours- these pieces affect people as well.
    And being one of the few people to see a work before it gets ripped down, buffed, decays or gets stolen is a special memory. Just because something is temporary doesn’t mean it has less value. At the end of the day street art/graffiti is meant to create a reaction- sometimes the piece stays up and you can have a longer conversation- other times because of its short-lived existence you can create a completely different conversation. BUT, if you’re going to put up a piece that can be assumed to have a short life span that should be taken into account in the design. If your going to work with temporary materials make your work about temporary ideas. That’s where the creativity falls short for me in yarn bombing. Blanketing things in bright colors can be beautiful, but if there is no context and no conception behind the piece I have a hard time really appreciating it.
    Make the conversation intentional. At least for me there needs to be a conversation about WHY you’re using this temporary medium.

  • And “you can’t sit with us”? As though inclusion into whatever you think you’re TOTALLY a part of is something yarnbombers want at all? Last time I checked, truly making art (i said art 😮 !) wasn’t about fitting into the group of cool kids. Ill gladly stay an outcast.

  • I was totally with you until that major generalization at the end. Of course there are people that just put knitting in places, but 1. I don’t find anything wrong with folks decorating their environment– they aren’t trying to be street artists, they’re just trying to brighten your day and 2. To clump all of us together is essentially insinuating that I’ve never thought about a project before.

  • Why didn’t you mention Aimee Dymond, the one female artist in that Converse vid, who doesn’t knit or crochet?

  • My city liked my work and asked me to do more with kids. How is that different from 1:AM SF working with kids on murals?

  • Jessie- I’m just saying that in response to how it’s viewed, I view a lot of other mediums the same way. If its a pretty painting- it’s just a pretty painting.. And I rarely get excited about art work that doesn’t have a concept behind it. Sure you can say beautification of a space w color is a concept- but I’m just not moved by work that isn’t made for a specific reason, that is understood without an artist’s statement- which obviously doesn’t exist in these instances. If I can see what you were thinking and why you put a piece in a certain location I’m going to appreciate it more, because on some level I’m relating to you. That is what, in my humble opinion, makes great public work.

  • Good point. Definitely should have included her!

  • You’re right. The title is immature. Art, for the most part, is quite individually created and art audiences are affected by work as individuals, so there should be no reason to create the illusion of a mob-mentality or art clique. As far as genres go, I see knitting as a craft which certainly has the ability be taken to an art form, but is inherently craft and developed for functionality, so my instincts are to view yarn bombing as a derivative of that.

  • ddd

    Aimee Dymond is not an street artist.
    This discussion is pointless.
    One thing is a fashion movement, others are (big) artist from the street. Nothing to do.
    All this because they use yarn? STUPID

  • Diana Woodhouse

    I agree with @jessiehemmons:disqus , in the sense that most criticisms of yarnbombing seem to be a devaluation of women’s art forms. There is a long history of this, dating back to the gallery systems, that is simply reproduced in street art. When a man takes women’s historical expressive forms and makes art out of it, it is considered a new take on something relatively unoriginal, uninspired, or mundane, but when a woman does it, it is called simply: unoriginal, uninspired, or mundane. London Kaye is an example of a new york based yarnbomber who does very interesting things with technique and form and she is hated on like all the rest. See this post as evidence, and note the extremely sexist, violent comments levied against her. http://diehipster.wordpress.com/2014/03/25/yarn-bombing-get-the-fuck-outta-here/comment-page-1/