Maybe not the most obviously futurismic topic I’ve posted in a while, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to mention yarnbombing, as covered by the charming folk at the Interstitial Arts Foundation:

My knitting group has been doing this for a while […] We’ve knitted flowers to wrap around bike racks, animals for a light post in front of the Animal Rescue League, Christmas ornaments to hang from trees in the park, insects to put on a fence at a dog park, and more. Today we were covering cement rings with brightly colored bits of knitting that we had loosely based around a “Spring” theme. Mine looks like a little bee, and I sewed it around a ring while people from the community watched and took pictures.

So what are we doing, and why are we doing this? The short answer is “sharing our art” and “because it’s fun.” There’s a longer answer about the importance of art being shared in a community, about art being public, about making a statement that people can add to or change as they see fit, but really, it’s fun. People in the South End of Boston, where we focus our efforts, love what we do. It’s a way to brighten up a public spot, and the people passing by today were really excited to see that we were doing something new. A little girl stopped with her family, and ended up helping some of my co-conspirators with the installation. How often does a kid get to say that while they were out walking in the park, they got to help with a public art installation? It’s a fascinating thing to me, that something like this can almost turn into performance art. People chat with us, they share stories about our other installations that touched them, they take pictures, it’s like an impromptu festival.

I’ve long defended the artistic validity of “traditional” graffiti (or, to be precise, the mural-scale tradition of graffiti that stemmed from NY hip-hop culture, rather than the simple scribbling of names on walls) because it represents something important: the reclamation of public space by the otherwise-voiceless public, and a testing of the boundaries of what “public space” actually means in the modern city – which, in many cases, is basically your right to go there at certain approved times, to engage in a certain limited set of legitimate activities, and to be advertised or marketed to.

Defending graffiti is a prickly subject, because it’s hard to get past the “destruction or defacement of public or private property” angle. The usual semantic come-back is that it’s actually “(re)decoration” of a public space, and that’s far easier to defend in the case of yarnbombing, a much softer artform (in both senses of the word). But furthermore, yarnbombing – intentionally or otherwise – reclaims and rehabilitates that urge to redecorate public spaces; the graffiti artist is too easily framed as a component of criminal gang culture and a destructive force in the urban environment, but those attacks dissolve when turned on the yarnbombers… which leaves the question open: is it the graffiti artist’s urge to redecorate his environment without asking permission that is repellent, or is it the [black-rooted, young, male, working class, outsider] culture from which [s]he springs that causes the true offence?

6 thoughts on “Yarnbombers”

  1. There’s a good reason why the graffiti artist is “too easily framed as a component of criminal gang culture”. They ARE gang members! I live in LA. 99% of graffiti is done by gang members just to mark territory.

    When a tomcat sprays a wall, is it art?

    What is really repellent is not their race or social status, it’s the permanent nature of their ‘redecorating’ of public space, unlike the ‘yarnbombers’. And their tendency to claim public spaces with bullets if you should try to remove their ‘art’.

  2. Ah-hah, the QED moment has arrived.

    99% of graffiti is done by gang members just to mark territory.

    Citation needed.

    When a tomcat sprays a wall, is it art?

    Bonus othering points for comparing people to animals!

    … the permanent nature of their ‘redecorating’ of public space…

    Can paint not be painted over?

    … their tendency to claim public spaces with bullets if you should try to remove their ‘art’.

    Citation definitely needed; I know gangs fight among each other over turf, but unless you can find me more than one isolated citation of a graffiti artists killing or injuring someone outside of their own cultural sphere over the removal of graffiti, I’m going to have to suggest that you’re less scared of gangs and taggers than you are of the media mythology that surrounds them, because you’ve ticked pretty much every race and class box on the Modern Urban Moral Panic bingo card.

  3. Paul, Nancy did not provide citations, but her general assertions about gang-related graffiti in Los Angeles, as well as the violence-prone gangs responsible for it, are hardly controversial (at least, not among people who have lived there). Yes, some of the graffiti is real art, and some of it is actually pretty good. But unfortunately, a lot of it is not. And some is even painted right on top of street and traffic signs, making these signs more difficult to read. That isn’t doing the public any favors. In such cases, the problem isn’t who does it, but what they do, and the genuine damage caused. And finally, much of the graffiti is actually on private property, done without the permission of the owners, resulting in substantial costs to clean it up.

  4. All very true, Robert; my issue was with Nancy’s sweeping statements and generous ‘scare quote’ usage; the relation between graffiti and gang culture is widely known, but if one is going to quote figures or make blanket statements, one should be prepared to back them up with evidence (as I think we’ve both agreed before, with respect to other topics).

    But what the yarnbombers make us ask is why people choose to redecorate the property of others; the answer to this question would appear to be rooted in the deep disparity of property ownership. When nothing of your city is your space, do you acquiesce to disempowerment or assert your identity in whatever way you’re able?

    Or, to put it another way: graffiti (and yarnbombing) are symptoms of a disease, not the disease itself; that disease is the economic (and cultural, in some cases) disconnect between poor people and the environment they live in. To see a cuddly non-threatening creative form like knitting being used for the same symbolic gesture as the harder defacements of spraypaint suggests the symptoms are becoming more widespread across class barriers they have not crossed before; the same complaints, only phrased more politely, if you will.

  5. Fair enough. I think your property ownership point in particular is a good one, but I don’t think it is the disparity of it so much as the basic lack of any significant property ownership at all, by so many, many middle/low-income people. From my perspective, big cities are too terribly crowded, too terribly overpriced, and not very pleasant places to live (unless you really do love being among big crowds of people — with lots of noise, stores, and nightlife — which some people do seem to enjoy). Most city dwellers would be amazed at how much land that a person of quite ordinary financial means can afford to purchase in a rural area, for a price that wouldn’t even pay for a parking space in New York City. Perhaps some of those unhappy non-property-owning city folk should consider moving out of the beehive of the city and to the more pleasant and contemplative world of the open countryside. And in most rural areas nowadays, you can even get internet (although it tends to be somewhat slower). Compare at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mbk81X6WHA4 . For me, Green acres beats Times Square. But hey, to each his own.

  6. Sometimes graffiti is liberal post-doc street artists getting off their “stand up to the Man” jeebies and manifesting their manifestos before a $10 chai stop at the Border’s Starbucks. Sometimes it’s stupid idle teenagers trying to emulate and commune with the distilled media gestalt of glamorized “criminal culture” before a stint of virtual cop-killin in GTA XII.

    And sometimes the “Bloodz” in crypto-medieval font actually is criminal gangs claiming territory in a drug war bleeding across the border. Which doesn’t make the economic fuckedness in the US any less fucked, but it also doesn’t make turning LA into an endgame Mexico City warzone a just response either — you want real anarchy? Try living in a place where a neighbor is being “disappeared” and beheaded every other day as cops stand by powerless. Just like there are many millions of insurance selling Wild Hogs bikers innocently nurturing their inner Herr Steppenwolves, but at the same time there are also real biker gangs (i.e. The Angels) who are often indistinguishable from organized crime syndicates.

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