Arts » Visual Art

Smart Bombs

Yarn bombing lacks the stigma of graffiti art

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There's a new type of graffiti in town. It's colorful, often called "cuddly" and found on bike racks, parking meters and tree trunks. A July KTVB Channel 7 story called it the "warm and fuzzy" side of street crime. Yarn bombing, as it's known, introduces colorful flashes of thread to the often-bleak urban landscape.

In Boise, an array of surfaces have been anonymously blanketed in knitted teal, fuchsia and periwinkle yarn.

"I would love to knit a top hat and put it up on Lincoln's head in front of the Capitol," said Genevra Lee, a sometimes street artist.

But Lee and partner in crime Renee Roberts aren't street artists in the stereotypical sense. They're female, they work in broad daylight and they use words like "whimsy."

"There's an element of giving people this sense of whimsy, of surprise. People don't expect to see it there," said Roberts, describing the duo's yarn masterpieces.

Bringing yarn from grandma's craft basket to the streets suggests a rejection of the usual straight-laced image of the medium. Karen Bubb, Boise's public arts manager, calls it a response to the "coldness of the environment."

"I think it's a national trend that comes out of the arts and crafts resurgence," said Bubb.

Bubb oversees downtown art, whether it's city-sanctioned, like the traffic-box art, or privately funded, like Freak Alley Gallery. In her opinion, yarn bombing differs from graffiti.

"Yarn bombing is a newer phenomenon," she said. "It isn't associated with destroying the community. At this moment, it's not a harbinger of destruction, so people think of it differently."

The city makes a similar distinction. Bubb said that the department responsible for the yarn-bombed fixture decides whether to keep it. Stuart Prince, with the City's Parking Services, said that as long as the yarn doesn't interfere with meter readings, they'll leave it.

Traditional street art doesn't enjoy such a relaxed stance. A city ordinance requires that graffiti--as well as its cousin, tagging--be removed within 24 hours, at the owner's expense. The Boise Police Department has a graffiti task force, and there's even a special graffiti hotline for masked painters.

David Hale, owner of the Linen Building on Grove Street, has dealt with both types of guerrilla art. The bike racks outside his venue have been yarn bombed, and he's personally dealt with tagging, calling it "a pain in the ass." However, he's quick to note that, in his eyes, graffiti is much different than tagging.

"I look at graffiti in more of an artistic sense," said Hale.

As for yarn bombing, he hopes it will continue to festoon his bike racks.

"It's like socks, in a way," said Hale. "It's like grandma's little touch out in public. You can't do anything too defacing with yarn."

But tagging doesn't carry the same charm.

"The vast majority of graffiti in Boise is tagging," said Lynn Hightower, Boise Police communications director. "It does increase the perception of crime--whether that is true or not."

Hightower said that citizens complain about graffiti, so the city must take action.

Solomon "Hawk" Sahlein from the above-ground graffiti collective Sector 17 suggests that it's not about the medium, it's more about the response. Graffiti is considered vandalism.

"Police wanna go full-force and prosecute us for a felony," said Sahlein. "It can get frustrating sometimes."

Hightower suggests that these differing views on graffiti and yarn bombing reflect society's perceptions of the two mediums. Citizens don't feel threatened by bespectacled yarn-bombers, but it's easy to imagine graffiti artists as hooded and frightening.

"I think a lot of people perceive [yarn bombing] as art," said Hightower. "And a lot of people don't perceive graffiti as art."

Jason Crawforth does. He's the co-owner of four Pie Hole locations, which feature spray paint murals from Idaho artists on the walls.

"Art comes in many, many forms. I think [graffiti] is just another form of art," said Crawforth. "It's from people that are not necessarily considered the 'cultured artists.'"

Though critics see graffiti as destructive when it isn't commissioned, fans suggest that the art form is misunderstood.

"It's meant to be creative, it's not mean to be destructive," said Crawforth.

But for the city, the permanent nature of the work makes all the difference.

"I feel yarn bombing is a different category ... it can be removed easily without damaging the property," said Bubb.

Though Sahlein appreciates yarn bombing as an art form, he also thinks the city shouldn't split hairs.

"Who are you to pick and choose what to prosecute and what to promote?" he added.

Hightower responded that Boise Police Department has never received a yarn-bombing complaint, and she wasn't sure if it could even be considered a crime.

But business owners like Crawforth are helping to preserve graffiti as an art form by providing their buildings as sanctioned canvases. Space for legal artwork, by its limited nature, creates a kind of natural selection among graffiti artists and helps elevate the artistry. Those drawn to street art naively start small on public surfaces.

"[Tagging] is easy to get into. You have a sharpie and you can walk around and do a little stupid tag or something," said Sahlein. "Most people who start are young kids, and they're dumb."

Though tagging might be dumb, it can lead artists to create elaborate spray paint murals as their skills develop. But rather than channeling this creativity into appropriate venues, cities across the country issue citations and stiff penalties. In Idaho, property damage over $1,000 constitutes a felony. But yarn bombing, as of now, remains fine-free and relatively stigma-free.

"One person did give us a little bit of a hard time," recounted Lee, laughing. "'You're going to cause people to be destructive,' the lady said. She thought that when people would get out of the bars and they would see these [yarn] birds, they'd pull down the branches to get them."

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