A Yarn to Believe

I like learning new words, new expressions.

This week, two words I knew well became altogether new to me in their pairing: yarn bombing. Yarn bombing was born some 9 years ago.

I learned of yarn bombing at the Canadian Theological Society’s meeting in Victoria.  Some younger scholars introduced me to it, and I am very glad for this.  Yarn bombing might be considered a riff on graffiti (literally, “writings”).  Most people have rather strong opinions on graffiti, and might find the comparison a bit odd at first blush.  Yarn bombers gently and generously quilt trees, plants, planters, posts, and a host of other things with beautiful wool creations.  Check out some fascinating photos here.

Yarn bombers share the vision with certain graffiti artists that public space is precisely that: public.  Both groups are convinced that space that is truly public should allow for free speech.  They just happen to think that free speech includes free expression that embraces visual forms.  Graffiti, of course, is not transient like sound and herein lays a host of problems.  Yarn, however, has the happy quality of being easily removed, and not quite as offensive as certain expressions of graffiti.  But the best of both artists – with yarn in one group of hands and spray bombs in another – challenge us to ask “Who has voice in public space?”  Is it really right that those with the most money win our time and attention?  Who decided that perversely rich companies get to bombard me with advertisements avowing wares that feed our greed for more in the very spaces set aside for free intercourse.  I realize that things are more complicated than they first appear, and that some graffiti is vandalism pure and simple, while not all commerce is corrupt.  Yet too many consider corporate North America to be virtuous at best and neutral at worst, while graffiti artists are so low as to be almost below reproach: they are to be loathed. Consequently, many folk readily identify every expression of graffiti with hooliganism even though it is sometimes publically countenanced.  When I was recently in Ottawa, my daughter Nadia, took me to a site set aside for graffiti artists.  You can see it here.

There truly is some beautiful graffiti, but it is hard for many to see beyond the preconceptions that all graffiti is illegal and so immoral.  This is why I was intrigued to learn of yarn bombing.  These young theologians, in treating the topic of yarn bombing, were asking important questions about public space, and the role of faith communities in ensuring that the public commons was not being sold to the highest bidder at the expense of our communal well being.  They claimed that everyone, none excepted, has a stake in the survival, and indeed flourishing, of places where all have voice.

Yarn bombing interestingly provokes us with comfortable matter.  It is a paradoxical prophetic word: this balm of yarn becomes a bomb – an explosion of colour inviting all to ponder whether there is a place in public space for those who otherwise have little opportunity to speak.

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22 thoughts on “A Yarn to Believe

  1. Ayngelina says:

    Thanks for sharing my post. Some of the most beautiful art I have seen is on the streets. It is odd how some cultures celebrate it and others hide it. In Buenos Aires paint companies actually sponsor street artists to go out into dismal, poorer neighborhoods to try to bring art to everyone.

  2. dianerivers says:

    I saw this on the opening page of Bing yesterday – lovely pictures of “yarn bombs”! I loved it! My daughter has taken pictures of trees in public spaces out in Oregon with their trunks clad in “tree sweaters”. I find it all whimsical and charming, not akin to vandalism in any way.

    • agjorgenson says:

      Agreed. I haven’t bumped into actual occurrences of it, but the photos are lovely.

      • Miranda Gray says:

        Really. Ottawa has couple of “permanent” yarn bombing installations. One is just outside the Ottawa Convention Centre where the Joint Assembly will be held.

  3. Marie Taylor says:

    Very interesting and I like the question you pose as to uses of public space particularly regarding advertising.

    • agjorgenson says:

      Yes. Some of the advertising we are subject to is atrocious, harmful, and plain ugly. It is odd to think that yarn bombing is illegal, while exploiting youth vulnerability isn’t.

  4. shoreacres says:

    I was caught by your assertion that “it is hard for many to see beyond the preconceptions that all graffiti is illegal and so immoral.” Illegal and immoral aren’t necessarily equivalent, of course. I’m curious whether that “so” in “so immoral” is meant as “thus” or “very”.

    Yarn is cute and pretty and cuddly, of course. But this is precisely the sort of reasoning that was set forth by the Occupy Movement as they set up camp in the public spaces. In their protests, they defaced public property, mistreated one another and defended it all by saying they had the right to have their say in the public space. Of course they do – but this is a world of competing rights, and attacking other citizens, defecating on police cars and stealing food from the homeless isn’t exactly the sort of thing most of us want going on in our towns and cities. Rather than sharing the public space, their declared intent in some places was precisely to drive others from the public square.

    I’m certainly not equating yarn bombers and the Occupy movement! Not at all. But if we’re not going to sell public space to the highest bidder, neither should we simply give it away to whoever claims it.

  5. agjorgenson says:

    Hi Linda. Thanks for your comments.

    I was thinking of “so” in the sense of “thus.” The distinction between illegal and immoral is clear to those with historical sensibilities.
    The sentence simply intends to invite readers who have not thought through the distinction to do so. Just as there are legal acts that are immoral, there are illegal one that are moral. I quite gladly attribute this latter designation to yarn bombing.

    I simply agree with you that we should neither sell public space to the highest bidder nor give it away to whoever claims it. In my part of the world, the default seems to be to sell and so a drive down the freeway is an assault on my sensibilities. Alas, we seem to have few forums for discussing the role and ethos for public commons. This was what I found important in the presentation I heard; a theme that will “occupy” me, but in a good way!

    • shoreacres says:

      I spent some time thinking about this today, and it wasn’t long before I remembered Richard John Neuhaus’ “The Naked Public Square”. Some atheists are planning to build a monument to – well, to nothing, I guess – in Florda, and the Washington Post made this quite reasonable point about it all: “Rather than spend more effort on seeing how empty we can make the American public square, we need to see how expansive and inclusive it can become.”

      You can read the whole editorial here. I think they would probably welcome yarn-bombers, too!

      • agjorgenson says:

        Thanks! Now you have given me something to think about all day. I should mention that I have just finished reading “Religion for Atheists” by Alain de Bottan – a British secular Jew, I think. The title is quite intriguing, as is the writing. At the end of the day, however, it seems to me to be a case of not wanting to have your cake, and eat it too.

  6. Denise Hisey says:

    I’ve never heard of this before.
    It’s an interesting idea to make an area available for legal graffiti.
    Thanks for teaching me about something new, Allen.

  7. diannegray says:

    This is the first I’ve heard of this as well, Allen. I’m heading over now to take a look the site 😀

  8. Miranda Gray says:

    I am surprised you didn’t also hear about he taken down of a yarn bombing installation in Ottawa last week. The anti-graffitii squad removed an installation because they treated it in the same was ass an illegal poster. Unfortunately they removed it the day before International Yarn Bombing day.

  9. agjorgenson says:

    The anti-graffiti squad took one down?! Too strange… but glad to know that their timing was so fortunate. Might that have been intentional? A kind of nod to the law?

  10. I’ve seen yarn bombings in uptown Waterloo and Toronto and I love it, I find them charming and somehow comforting.

  11. agjorgenson says:

    I’ve never seen it in KW. Next time you hear of it, please let me know. I’d love to see it.

  12. Joe Cardillo says:

    Have seen a few pieces around town lately, but I didn’t know it was called yarn bombing until now..

    I think it’s great. Because corporations already own so much of the public space (much of which arguably they should not) it’s nice to see alternatives. As for whether it’s defacing / illegal / unethical, well many of the best movements and change have been accused of the same. As long as it raises questions and isn’t harming anyone, I’m all for it.

    • agjorgenson says:

      Thanks for commenting! Since posting this I have run into so many people who rave about this, and one who has been involved in it. Very interesting stuff raising important questions about public space.

  13. jannatwrites says:

    Thought-provoking post. I see graffiti as offensive when it is applied in public spaces and promotes hatred or gang affiliation. In the city, I’ve seen several graffiti-style murals painted on walls that were intended for that purpose and I didn’t mind them. The ‘tags’ illegally spray painted on freeway signs and building sides bother me because the city (and ultimately taxpayers) shell out the money to have those spaces repainted and restored to their original state.

    I’ve never heard of yarn bombing, but I think it’s a fun idea and a relatively harmless artistic expression. What sets it apart from graffiti is that it is easily removed.

  14. agjorgenson says:

    Thanks for commenting! I agree, anything that promotes hate is ugly, no matter how beautiful it is. Yarn bombing makes me think about the value of public space made commercial,and so I think it gorgeous.

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