Arts Desk

Striking at the Heart of Yarn Bombing

A heart for Jimmy Valentine's.

Tomorrow, the exterior of Jimmy Valentine’s Lonely Hearts Club on Bladensburg Road NE will be covered—that is to say, yarn-bombed—with knitted hearts in shades of pink and red. The cozy facade is part of ARTventures on H, during which galleries and art spaces along the H Street NE corridor open their doors for a neighborhood art walk. Beth Baldwin—artist, crafter, and self-proclaimed “Queen of Knitting Awesomeness”—came up with the idea to swathe Jimmy V's in knit graffiti, and has been organizing “knit-ins” to procure as many hearts as possible for the 5:30 p.m. unveiling. “I’d love to have 150 hearts on the building,” she says. “I am really hoping to make this the biggest yarn bomb D.C. has had.”

Though Jimmy Valentine’s will undoubtedly look pretty cool, we have to ask: Is sanctioned knit graffiti…graffiti? Street art, of which knit graffiti is a part, is generally created in secret and its content is often anti-establishment in nature. Even D.C.’s own renegade yarn bombers, Mount Pleasant’s Warm and Fuzzies (whom I wrote about on Arts Desk last August), go by the street names Pasta and Ruffles. What does it mean when street art becomes part of an organized, marketable event? Is this tantamount to Banksy revealing his identity and putting together installations for Coke? Is yarn bombing all downhill from here?

Pasta and Ruffles, incognito.

Baldwin notes that the hallmark of a successful piece of public art is when it makes a person take in the environment in a new way and adds lightness and humor to his or her day. The Jimmy Valentine’s project should definitely accomplish that whether or not the hearts go up with the owner’s blessing. Pasta and Ruffle’s take? “It’s a little different than what we do,” the Warm and Fuzzies write in an email. “It’s more about marketing and less about personal expression, though approved yarn bombing is an innovative marketing technique and it also supports local artists.”

But knit graffiti has another strike against its covert, rebellious rep—it’s been all over the mainstream news recently, from an NPR “All Things Considered” piece in April to a New York Times Style section article in May. Magda Sayeg, considered by many to be the founder of the knit-graffiti movement, appeared prominently in the Times article, where she recounted how she is now paid by corporations to wrap their products in yarn. She once knit a Christmas sweater for a Toyota Prius in a promotional video, and is at work wrapping a Mini Cooper for an upcoming ad. “In the early years I identified with underground graffiti artists,” she told the Times. “Now the very people I feared I would get in trouble with are the ones inviting me to do this work for them.”

If that doesn’t scream “jumping the shark,” we don’t know what does. But we're trying to keep an open mind.

Photos courtesy of Beth Baldwin and the Warm and Fuzzies.

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  • readerer

    such jadedness at the city paper. i think it's fun.

  • noneof yourfuckingbizness


  • aef

    I guess it depends on why people create things like this with yarn. If it's because they are dying to do "illegal streetart" and crocheting or knitting is what they know, that's one thing.
    If they are just interested in creating works that are meaningful in some way, then it doesn't really matter, does it?

    I'm sure all these questions have been asked of every street art movement that gets adopted by the mainstream.

  • Skipper

    This article jumped the shark.

  • Mimi Kirk

    aef, a good point. There’s always a debate when art or music that’s been more “underground” becomes more mainstream. For some, something is lost – the object or song loses its “aura” – while for others, it's a good thing because more people get to enjoy it and it still fulfills many of the same functions it originally did (like what Beth Baldwin said about the success of public art being its ability to make someone take in the environment in a new way). Thanks for your comment.

  • art in dc

    wouldn't knitting have been considered to go very mainstream after the hugely popular Radical Lace/ Subversive Knitting exhibition at the Museum od Art and Design over 5 years ago? if something has been exhibited at a world class museum, it's pretty silly to even talk about underground anymore. while some artists may not of had much exposure the notion that street art, or knitting, has not been mainstream for a long time is ignorant, plain and simple. that boat has sailed. this article just showcases why we have poor arts coverage in dc, and why people can't trust the city paper.

  • Mimi Kirk

    art in dc, Knitting, of course, became hip more than a decade ago – I don’t think there’s any argument there, and the 2007 exhibit at the Museum of Arts and Design is indicative of that. But I do think there’s a difference between a museum exhibit that displays knitted objects not meant for the street and by named artists versus knit graffiti, which is often anonymous and, after all, technically illegal. So, when knit graffiti (which has been around since 2005) becomes something that appears in the national media, as it has in the past few months, and these articles demonstrate that knit graffiti can now be a sanctioned means of advertising commodities, then in my view it’s a different story. People will have diverging takes on whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, as the comments here show. Thanks.

  • jafagirls

    As another poster stated "If they are just interested in creating works that are meaningful in some way, then it doesn't really matter, does it?'

    Your're right aef,it doesn't matter. My friend and I do what we want regardless of trends, and yarnbombing these last 4 years has and does continue to be part of our street art activities. What others choose to do as artists, and whether yarnbombing is mainstream, really has no impact or relevance to our creative needs.

  • art in dc

    so you use the fact that knit graffiti can be used to sell a commodity to insult beth baldwin by asking if her work and the work of others like her has jumped the shark? you understand how rude that is, i assume.

    Must an art form remain free and clear of earning a living to stay valid?

    in either case, this article is about one artist and a cool bar. why the need to find insult with that?

  • Mimi Kirk

    Hi again, artindc,
    Well, I think where we diverge is that I don’t think this brief post is about “one artist and a cool bar.” It’s about the idea that when underground art becomes commodified and mainstream, then it can be said to have "jumped the shark”—which doesn’t mean it’s not valid, it simply means that it has lost its edge or freshness—in this case, in terms of its rebelliousness against mainstream, capitalist society. And that's of course an opinion; others don't have to (and don't, it seems) agree that that’s anything of import—or are indifferent to it (e.g, “YAWN,” from noneofyourfuckingbizness above)! & Happy Days, after all, was on for many years after the episode in which Fonz jumped the shark, to the delight of many.

    For the record, I definitely did not mean the post to be in any way a personal insult against Beth Baldwin. Indeed, I pointed out that the building would look cool, that the event would be successful because it would cause people to take in their environment in a new way (as Beth pointed out), and that fellow yarn bombers Pasta and Ruffles didn’t think the event was a jumping the shark kind of thing at all. Best, Mimi

  • beth baldwin

    I was actually more insulted by the fact it was (or seemed to be) deemed as a "marketing ploy" when in fact (and said as such in the answers I had emailed) I have very personal reasons for taking on this project.
    I drove Bladensburg Rd. twice a day (if not more) for almost 10 years when I lived in SE DC and commuted to Mt. Rainer Md. from 1998-2007 and had some fairly dicey experiences on the street so when I was asked for ideas for Jimmy Valentines, and knowing the aesthetic of the bar, I recommended yarnbombing. The thought of doing something "cute" on this particular street really excited me.
    The fact that I had permission to do this, I don't think, detracted in any way from this project. In fact, I even said that this afforded me a bigger canvas that I probably would have ever have had access to if I had attempted this under the cloak of night.
    My friends were excited about this and pitched in, other members of the community heard about it and came and knit (or crocheted) hearts because they saw this on their listserv and thought it "sounded radical" and I was delighted by the range of ages of the people partaking in this.
    I was also really excited by how positive the response was by people on the street as I was putting the hearts up. Many were concerned for their safety and their inevitable removal by other people. I said to not worry- that that was part of the course of temporary art.
    Is it art? Fuck, I don't know. But it was fun to do and that's all that matters to me.

  • art in dc

    clearly i missed your point. help me out. if you think that this installation "would cause people to take in their environment in a new way " and "that the building would look cool," why use this as an example to talk about the staleness of the media and delivery? It's just puzzling to me.
    is it dull and stale or not?

  • Mimi Kirk

    @artindc: Your question is right on, because essentially, it's both. Though I was principally arguing that an art form loses its edge or freshness once it becomes mainstream/commodified, that doesn't mean all is lost (which is why I made those points you cite).

    @beth: Thank you for writing. I'm sorry that you felt personally insulted; that was not my intention. I do stand by my point about sanctioned yarn bombing for a business being a different animal than illegal yarn bombing (and that it loses something in this process). Here I don't mean that you were out to personally make money or anything like that - but simply that doing a sanctioned yarn bombing project for a bar shows that knit graffiti is morphing into something else, something that can now be business-related. Of course, the Toyota Prius example is the more extreme one. Thank you for sharing your thoughts here about why you wanted to do the project, how you had a bigger canvas, that you and other people enjoyed it, etc. Those points are part of the larger picture artindc and others discuss above.