- Cover of Urban Knits by Simone Werle (all photos by the author)
Urban Knits, a small book of colorful photographs with a padded hardcover and bright yellow, bubble-like text, explores a relatively new kind of graffiti called “urban knitting,” self-proclaimed to be the most “inoffensive” type of urban graffiti. Compiled by Simone Werle, the author of such books as Fashionista (2009) and Style Diaries (2010), Urban Knits takes an eclectic glimpse at this worldwide urban trend.
With contributions from numerous different individual artists and knitting collectives, the locations for these works range from all over Europe, Canada, the US, Australia and West Asia. The different types of soft graffiti represented in this book run the gamut from ambitious knit projects and compelling earth art installations, to fun and (sometimes) clever interventions in our everyday urban environments. Like most books of its kind, a collection compiled by theme, Urban Knits unintentionally shows the wide discrepancies in quality that exist in all forms of art, but that are especially prevalent in graffiti and street art. When the impetus for making art is not exclusively about the quality of the work itself but rather about the act of leaving a mark, the results are often less than imaginative. This seems to hold true for tagging as well as knitting.
A traditionally feminine material and technique, knitting is presented by Werle as a much-needed antidote to traditionally masculine graffiti and street art, with its rebellious and destructive undertones. While street art in recent years has taken the place of graffiti in the public’s mind, with artists like Banksy and gallerist/curators like Jeffery Deitch redefining the illegal and “unwanted” perception of such art, it does remain a predominantly masculine endeavor. Swoon is the only obvious internationally recognized exception to this all boy’s club. Thinking of urban knitting as “soft graffiti” as Werle suggests, seems to comment on the long-standing institutional practice of excluding female artists (in decades past) and female techniques. Too much of our institutionally approved public art is made by large-scale male artists. Will Ryman, Sol Lewitt, Ai Weiwei, Urs Fisher, Jaume Plensa and Rob Pruitt touched down in New York City with public artworks this summer, to name just a few examples. Most of our subversive street artists are also men: Shepard Fairey, Space Invader, Kaws and so on. It does seem refreshing then, that these “guerrilla knitters,” most of them women partaking in societies or collectives, like the Ladies Fancywork Society of Denver or the South End Knitters of Boston, are taking matters into their own hands by covering our cities in bright, wooley yarns.
Urban Knits divides roughly into two categories of makers: artists and knitters out to have fun. The standout artist in the book is Carol Hummel, whose public artworks and projects are in the vein of Christo/Jeanne-Claude and Andy Goldsworthy. In one project, made while attending the CLUI residency in Wendover, Utah, Hummel created a tentacle-like installation of 300 different crochet circles, or “cells.” Spread across the desert landscape like flowing lava or a mutant plant, like those neon cactus grafts they sell in the supermarket, Hummel’s cells breathe a new life into a desolate and dilapidated landscape.
In another piece, titled “Tree Cozy” (2005-08), Hummel wraps a massive, towering tree in brightly striped knit cozies, the scale of which lends the project its visual force. As she states, “the cozy covering the tree fluctuates between comforting blanket and suffocating cover-up.” Like Werle’s introductory essay, Hummel speaks of her work using terms such as “woman-made,” and “masculine vs. feminine.” Another installation of similar ambition, made by the Ladies Fancywork Society, is the colorfully floral embellishment of a drab, chain-link fence by a group of knitters. Titled “The Flower Garden Fence Project,” this piece was the fruit of an open call to artists to “liven up” a local downtown fence.
Though it might seem as if even Hummel and the LFS lack artistic and conceptual weight, most of Urban Knits’ pieces are missing any weight of this kind whatsoever. Every pole, post, streetlight, tree, bench, chain, bus stop, public restroom, bike rack, statue, trashcan and fence that might exist within an urban environment is represented and covered by a colorful, knit embellishment. If we judgmentally assume for a moment that all male street artists wish to deface private and public property with their “mark”, it is equally as disturbing to believe that all female street artists wish that “hard” and “gray” cities were covered head to toe in soft, vibrant cozies. Perhaps there is something right, however, with these light and airy additions to our cement laden cities. Among the most playful of these types of knitters are the colorful additions — scarves, wrist warmers and ski masks — to various towering, bronze statues by the Scandinavian group called Masquerade. Carol Hummel also humorously decorates rickshaws in India and Nepal with fancy, fuzzy yarns in a project called Rickshaw Yarn Bombing. The playfully embellished bus shelters by the Tel Aviv based group Savta Connection, look like the type of bus shelters we — or at least our grandmother — wish we could wait at.
I want to appreciate the type of knitworks we see in Urban Knits, and ideas behind the movement, but I wish these artworks were more powerful and effective, and less fun. During a lecture I heard once in art school, art was defined as fulfilling three basic categories. Firstly, a work of art must grab a viewer’s attention. Second, it must hold the viewers attention, and lastly, it must leave the viewer with something to think about. It’s a definition that seemed general enough for most to agree with, but specific enough to give art, a term often flung about without discretion, a structure and purpose. While a few of Urban Knit’s artists and collectives fulfill all three of these requirements, the vast majority of them satisfy only the first two, and a few none at all.
Looking through Urban Knits, I imagine they would find these concerns and categories irrelevant. Like trying to find originality in a Shepard Fairey mural, expecting too much can cause you to miss the point altogether. Urban knitting, they seem to suggest, however frivolous, is always a benefit to our urban environment.