Guerrilla knitting is making the jump from political statement to architectural device
For many architects the fear that their building may one day be defiled by vandals wielding spray paint is a palpable one. Meanwhile the line in the sand that defines what is a legitimate alteration in the urban realm is increasingly blurred. When New York street artists repainted a bike lane that had been removed from Brooklyn’s Bedford Avenue in 2009, they argued that the lane had been erased against the interests of the public by a local authority anxious to pander to corporate lobbyists.
In his essay, ‘Bombing Modernism’, the writer Amos Klausner argues that the rise of street art was an understandable show of machismo from a generation of working-class teenagers left alienated by the Modernist tower blocks they were crowded into. But despite occasional moral quandaries, for most local authorities street art has always been simple to legislate against because somewhere along the line it must involve the physical defacement of property. The resources spent on the removal of such urban art proved effective justification for criminal convictions and the precious architect could sleep easy.
However, in the last few years a new group of street artists have been changing the rules: a grassroots movement of vigilante urbanists who with stealth and aplomb alter their urban environment with knitted interventions. Armed with wool, crochet hooks and knitting needles, anonymous groups have brought a tactile softness to the hard edge of urban environments the world over.
Working in teams they target public objects, cladding bike racks, door handles, trees, bollards and telephone booth handsets in brightly coloured coverings. The result is a multi-sensory form of graffiti that, unlike tags and stencils, is easy to remove. Routinely dismissed by newspapers as a passing craze, Guerrilla Knitting has proved itself enduring and surprisingly international. Pieces now appear across Europe, North America, Australia, Scandinavia, Japan and even India.
As megastar street artists such as Shepard Fairey or Banksy have gradually become absorbed in celebrity and eye-watering price tags, their school of work has lost relevance and credibility for the communities it came from. Into the void, a new wave of artists has emerged bringing the thrifty craft of knitting to the city in an attempt to inject moments of delight while gently claiming back some control of an increasingly corporatised public realm.
Just as traditional graffiti artists used bare walls as canvas for social commentary, so too knitters have been quick to use woollen installations as a political platform. October 2010 saw Magda Sayeg wrap the giant handgun and holster of a war statue in Bali: any heroic propaganda power of unnamed young soldier immediately undermined by the friendly colours of the Sayeg’s knitting. In May 2011 the New York Times reported the yarn bombing of the Wall Street Bull by Polish artist Agata Oleksiak.
Working overnight Oleksiak had covered the entire statue in a patchwork skin of wool. Combining knitting with the statue was an overt political stunt aimed at an irresponsible financial district and was quickly cut down by police, but elsewhere local authorities normally charged with the removal of graffiti have been confused as to how to respond to woollen art. Officially considered vandalism, the knitting is so innocently deposited and so easily removed, that councils find themselves unsure how to proceed.
Last year a group of students boarded a U-Bahn train on the outskirts of Berlin at dawn. By the time it reached the city centre every grab handle had been wrapped in brightly coloured woollen patches. Eventually the U-Bahn authorities removed the uninvited additions but left them in place for the full day allowing commuters to encounter the cheerful surprise. The tactile appeal of such pieces is popular and led online retailer Etsy to hire a knitting team to wrap every inch of their Brooklyn office’s exposed ductwork in multi-coloured blankets.
That shift from urban pest to environmental asset hints at the possibility for knitting to be a legitimate architectural device. It is not hard to envisage a future where the architects of tomorrow’s Maggie’s Centres could specify knitted details and crocheted cladding, but for now Guerrilla Knitters remain comfortably on the fringes of urbanism, acting as playful provocateurs without giving the architect cause to fear their intrusions.