Like many of his colleagues, James Jessie has seen the works by knit graffiti artist Streetcolor around Kensington.
These colorful, yarn-wrapped signposts along Colusa Circle, brighten up this quiet place, says Jessie, who works in this tiny Contra Costa County town.
“It’s kind of fun,” James says. “It’s like a Berkeley kind of cool.”
He pauses then asks: “What are they selling?”
Streetcolor, a name she goes by to avoid attention from the authorities, is selling nothing. She’s “yarnbombing.” She spends at least 12 hours a day spinning yarn, knitting pole cozies and has so far placed nearly 50 around Berkeley, Oakland and Kensington for others to enjoy.
“That’s so complex to answer,” she says during a phone interview. For starters, she says, she loves vessels and pieces of art that have a significant amount of color. She also likes huge sculpture, so having her knitted work stand tall on a large pole gives her some satisfaction.
She also likes that her art is free and immediate — people can experience her pieces while they walk to the coffee shop or stroll through Berkeley’s theater district.
“Our culture is into being free and immediate,” she says. “Once I put them up and I saw how the knitting looked against sidewalks and roads and signs, I thought it was amazing. It’s thrilling.”
Finally, she says, she was inspired to color up her environment — she lives in the East Bay — after reading the book “Yarnbombing: The Art of Crochet Knit Graffiti” (Arsenal Pulp Press, $19.95) by Mandy Moore and Leanne Prain.Prain, who lives in Vancouver, Canada, says a yarnbombing explosion began last year all over the world and is gaining steam in the United States.
“It’s happening during the American recession,” Prain says. “It’s something you can do at home that’s meditative. People are looking for something that gives a sense of joy right now, alternative ways to express themselves.”
The motivations for knitters to do this painstaking and time consuming work are different for every person, Prain says.
“People knit for political reasons, street art reasons. But what we’ve found from all the groups we talked to is everybody is doing it out of a sense of joy,” she says. “They feel happiness doing it, and they hope it brings a sense of happiness to other people.”
Prain yarnbombs around Vancouver. She doesn’t worry about what happens after she knits and places it in a public place.
“I’ve knit pieces that have been there for over and year and a half. People care take them,” she says. “I’ve also knitted pieces that have been gone in a half-hour. The art of craftiness is making something and the rest is not important.”
That’s how Magda Sayeg of the yarnbombing group Knitta feels about her work. Sayeg is credited as being one of the first bombers and, although Knitta is now just herself rather than a group of people, the group’s influence in this community is marked. For example, the “T” on the controversial “Herethere” sculpture on the Oakland/Berkeley border was covered with a yarnbomb last April. Although a nearby knitting store participated in the bombing, it was credited to Sayeg’s Knitta group.
Sayeg, who now lives in Austin, Texas , started yarnbombing after knitting a piece for the doorknob of her small fashion boutique. Since then, making yarnbomb sculptures has become a full-time job, one that has brought her work to galleries in Rome, London and Bali.
“I like to beautify things,” she says. “I like to put knitting on things that are ugly. To have this sweet universal language of knitting that’s going on, I think it’s incredibly powerful.”
Streetcolor, who works with a helper she’s named The Russian, has seen just a handful of her pieces taken down since she started this project about two months ago. And she no longer puts the pieces up in the dead of night. Instead, she decorates poles during the day, pausing to talk with people who ask questions. She likens it to street theater.
“The interaction is a big part of it,” she says.
Streetcolor says she feels like she is turning graffiti on it’s head.
“It’s only going to be up for a while, and I think it enhances the area,” she says. “It’s just this momentary experience of it being more fun to be there.”