Helena Björk

A few years ago, pictures of knitted pieces on lamp posts and traffic signs started showing up on the internet. I must have been looking for a simple hat pattern when I ran into one of these. On the surface a silly craze, there was something about the phenomenon that kept teasing my mind.

The fact that a traditional women’s handicraft, usually strictly confined to making everyday objects, would find itself into public space was fascinating in many respects. This was the starting point of exploring an encounter of the home and the public sphere, of the feminine and the masculine, of commercial messages and individual expressions. The following article unravels the background of graffiti and textile expressions, and suggests an interpretation to what a piece of knitting in a public setting represents.

Knitting for a lamp post

According to the global folklore of knitting graffiti, the trend has its origins in Texas, where Magda Sayeg knitted a “warmer” for the door handle of her shop in 2005. The overwhelmingly positive response encouraged her to knit more, and very quickly, knitting graffiti had become a global trend.

The knitting around all kinds of urban constructions soon came to be called knitted graffiti. Alongside variations such as guerilla knitting, yarn bombing has now established itself as the standard term for visual expressions in the urban space that involve textile. The term is an allusion on the graffiti term bombing, originating in the 1980s New York graffiti scene, where it meant writing one’s tag all over a subway train car. Tagging, which in the graffiti tradition is about a crew name written with a felt pen, is also widely used as a term in knitting graffiti.

Embroidery on the seat of tram, Helsinki. Helena Björk 2010

During its short history yarn bombing has evolved into a range of different varieties. Some knitters work by themselves and publish images in blogs to interact with others. The blog address is often attached to the work for passersby who want to find out more or comment on what they have seen. Some work in crews of many knitters, true to a style like Denver-based Ladies’ Fancywork Society who deliberately exaggerate frills, lace and traditionally feminine colours. Some groups cover statues in knitting, while others choose suitable rocks in the landscape. In Finland, artists Aino Louhi and Kaija Papu have covered a seven meter tall tree in the middle of the forest in knitting as a part of environmental art project in Oranki. Kaija Papu is currently showing a crocheted police car in Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, highlighting the soft and homely connotations of the material by contrasting it with a symbol of authority.

From graffiti to street art

While writing on walls has always existed, ambitious graffiti painting the way we have come to know it as a part of hiphop culture has it’s origins in 1970s New York and Philadelphia. The subway train cars were the perfect canvas for suburb youth who wanted their work to be seen across town. Large pieces were painted on the sides of trains to impress peers. Graffiti painting spread across America and came to Europe in the 1980s. A rich culture grew, with differences in styles between cities or even suburbs. Zero tolerance policies in several cities from the end of the 1990s managed to wipe out a lot of the graffiti and simultaneously deprive a sub culture of visual impulses.

In the 21st century graffiti grew into different forms of street art. The traditional writing (of a crew name in different styles) evolved into painting with more freedom in terms of subject matter. New techniques, especially stencil painting, were embraced, allowing the painters to quickly spray a carefully crafted picture onto a surface. Among the stencil painters, names like Banksy and German banana painter Thomas Baumgärtel became celebrities widely known outside the art circles.

At the same time, new materials ranging from ceramic tiles to flowers started popping up on unexpected sites. While graffiti writing largely revolved around crews, these new forms of graffiti allowed for individual expressions to enter the stage. Materials and activities associated with the domestic sphere suddenly made claims to public space in a manner that was marked by openness and a sense of humour. This was particularly the case with textile graffiti.

Graffiti painting within the hiphop tradition was, and still is, a predominantly male activity. The forming of local crews with strict hierarchies was an essential part of the learning process. Today images are easily shared on the Internet and impulses can come from anywhere. Differences in style are no longer determined by geographical location, but have more to do with sources of inspiration in a global network. While some of the uniqueness tied to a place has been lost, a rich range of materials and styles have made it possible to explore the urban landscape from different viewpoints. This has meant, among other things, that the sphere of the home traditionally seen as feminine has taken a step out into the open.

Shaping objects, twisting function

Knitted graffiti is essentially clothing techniques applied to urban constructions. It uses crafts associated with textile and clothing design but has a twisted relationship to function. An element of surprise is embedded in this, where playing with expectations has a central role.

Knitted graffiti in Vanhan kirkon puisto, Helsinki 2012. Piece by Harju Youth Centre as a part of Knit ‘n’ Tag, an event organised by Youth Department, City of Helsinki

The design duo Com-pa-ny, consisting of Aamu Song and Johan Olin, working across the fields of design, art and architecture often create design objects that are conceptually motivated. The Takkiainen is a coat with a back side made of velcro, designed to help lonely people connect to others. Maahousut (Ground pants) are polyurethane trousers dug into the soil to simulate the feeling of being a tree rooted in the ground. These objects are (formally) speaking garments that play with the idea of clothing and cross over into the field of art.

Similarly Byggstudio, a team of graphic designers Hanna Nilsson and Sofia Østerhus, create concepts such as Vintage Plant Shop, where house plants with a history find new homes. What looks like an ordinary shop is actually focused on the stories of plants that are often tied to the previous owners’ lives. The shop delights and confuses visitors, leaving a trace in their minds. With a mix of archive files of plants on display along with living plants, it is in fact a cleverly disguised intervention in an environment focused on shopping. Complete with neat logo design, the shop concept is a brand with a distinct visual identity, and yet subtly critical of consumption in presenting stories rather than objects.

Knitted graffiti often playfully refers to function by means of patterns reminiscent of clothing, or in the use of language. A tree is “dressed” in knitting, even though the tree will do just fine without a sweater. Just like many designs by Com-pa-ny, textile graffiti questions the notion of function and suggests that making someone smile could be just as relevant as the practical use of isolating from cold weather. Added to this is a focus on “feminine” values, playing on the same strings as Byggstudio’s shop concept. Perhaps the future will see more designers steering in a conceptual course, shaping common values rather than interpreting them.

Marking territory

Textile expressions have a long history of being referred to the sphere of the feminine. Although Medieval tapestries were made by men alongside women, embroidery very quickly came to be practised by women only. By the 19th century, it was considered an expression of the feminine nature. An impressive piece of embroidery was therefore not seen as an artistic accomplishment but as something natural, like birds flying. 20th century avant-garde movements such as the Dada wanted to use textiles as a medium to challenge the high status of painting, but did not essentially manage to free them from being associated with the feminine.

Textile crafts also have trouble finding their place in outsider art. Documentations of outsider art have often ignored textile imagery, dismissing it as something belonging to the home. An image embroidered on a pillow is part of a functional object, and cannot, apparently, therefore count as visual art. It seems ironic that the selection of artists made for Finnish catalogues on outsider art has been based on the very traditional media of painting and sculpture, despite ambitions to think outside the white cube.

In light of the outsider position textile expressions have had in art, textiles cannot be considered just any medium for creating line, colour, form and composition. This has been seen with artists like Louise Bourgeois, Annette Messager and Kim Sooja, who are very aware of the connotations of their materials. In the street, textiles have a striking quality of conveying slowness and caring. Knitting and crochet are generally done by women, even though they have become trendy across gender as snowboarders have discovered the possibility to make individual accessories. And just like any activity associated with the sphere of the feminine, such as caring for house plants, they carry a potential to expose values connected to the public space.

While many guerrilla knitters devote themselves to creating sculptural shapes or artful colour compositions, it seems inadequate then to focus on the formal aspects of textile graffiti. When a material traditionally used for something wearable or useful for the home is used purely for expression, and in the public space, modernist parameters fall short.

Knitted graffiti is not always pleasing to the eye. It may look harmless to some, and absolutely uncool to others. Some appreciate the detailed work while others are unable to decipher the code language of knitting. The expressions are rich and impossible to control, just like with traditional painted graffiti. In the abundance of commercial images that characterize a city, they are however more than welcome.

To an art professional, knitted graffiti poses an intellectual challenge. Looking beyond the object of the knitted piece, there is an important act involved: that of challenging the imagery and ownership of the public space. Commercial images of women are typically objectifying – their goal is to sell a product. Knitted graffiti is, in contrast, made by women of all ages. What is striking is the emergence of active subjects, claiming a piece of the public space and communicating their own message. Managing to combine irony and sincere joy, they are postmodern and beyond. In Freudian terms, they are reversing power relations by the very use of humour. A piece of knitting in a park is, above all, a gesture that should not be underestimated.


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