A handful of dedicated guerrilla crochet artists are brightening Tacoma streets

Staff writerSeptember 20, 2013 

It’s 8 p.m. on a weeknight on Tacoma’s Sixth Avenue, and there’s a slightly odd scene happening. A woman with long blonde hair and a gray hoodie sits on an old towel on the sidewalk, right by the trash cans and newspaper bins. Cars thunder by; pedestrians cast glances. Then she whips out of her bag a pile of bright red and white crocheted yarn, and starts to sew it onto a bike rack in a long tube. Twenty minutes and two zip-ties later, she’s gone. The Sixth Avenue Yarn Bomber has struck again – and Tacoma gets one more installation of a guerrilla art form that’s making people all over the world smile.

“I’d just come back from vacation, which is always a letdown, and was looking for something fun to do for the end of summer,” explains Kassie Mitchell, aka the Sixth Avenue Yarn Bomber. “I thought it’d be really fun for everybody.”

So on Aug. 16, Mitchell took her crochet needles and created a gay-pride-colored ‘sweater’ for the bike rack outside Tandem clothing. The next day, she did another.

It’s not an expensive project, either in time or money: 150 rows of double crochet, using a $3 ball of yarn and taking about three hours to make. Installation also is quick and easy: Mitchell takes her colorful crocheted rectangle and sews it together around the rack with an upholstery needle, spreading it across the rack when she’s done and zip-tying it at each end so it stays put. The process is so straightforward, she’s able to install one a day, despite a full-time job in a dental lab.

The result is just as much fun as she’d hoped: pedestrians cheering her on, business owners happy, lots of compliments on the Facebook page she set up this month.

“It was awesome when I first saw it,” says John Xitco, owner of Masa, Asado and Engine House No. 9, all now graced with yarn-bomb bike racks. “She was trying to do it anonymously and hoped she wouldn’t get caught on our security cameras. Sixth Avenue is all about the arts — I think there should be more stuff like this.”

Other business owners were asking when they could have a yarned bike rack, says Mitchell and there was a great deal of suspense when for a few days the coffee table outside Satellite only had one of two legs yarned in stripy green, black and white.

“I had a yarn crisis,” explains Mitchell. “I ran out of green.”

The racks were even color-coordinated with the businesses they decorated: Mexican flag colors for Masa, Rasta red-yellow-green for Shakabrah Java, blue and white for Tapco, red and black for Legendary Doughnuts, orange and lime for High Maintenance Spa (coincidentally, also the Indian flag colors for Gateway to India next door).

Mitchell then upped the ante, crocheting three-dimensional yarn sculptures for selected racks: flowers for North End Physical Therapy, a fairy and mushroom for Urban Alchemy, a pizza for Medi’s restaurant, a fried egg for the Old Milwaukee Café and a hot dog for Red Hot. Not even thieves cutting off the sculptures can stop her — Mitchell just crochets a sad-face emoticon and sews that on instead. So far, she says, no one has vandalized the 28 (and counting) sweaters ranged along the avenue from Alder to Fife streets.

The Sixth Avenue Yarn Bomber might work alone, but she’s not the only one. As an art form, yarn bombing (also known as guerrilla knitting or graffiti knitting) has taken off recently around Tacoma, the country and the world. A group of yarn bombers was organized by a coalition of local activists to cover the chain link fence along the west side of St. Helens Avenue, just south of Sixth Avenue, with upcycled sweaters and knitted flowers in a springtime installation this year.

Pride-colored yarn sweaters adorn the trunks of trees along Broadway near Theater on the Square. And around the world, yarn bombers have wrapped the Pittsburgh Bridge, the Broadway Bridge in Portland, a mammoth sculpture in the Yukon, a house facade in Los Angeles, a pier in England, trees in Sydney and brick walls in Germany. They’ve put socks on sculptures, sweaters on street poles and blankets on benches.

The Yarn bombing page on Facebook, begun in late 2009, is at about 18,000 likes. There are yarn bombing online magazines, Flickr sites and even a book (Mandy Moore, “Yarn Bombing”), as well as yarn bombers in exhibitions and at conferences.

McDonald’s even featured a gleeful yarn bomber in a recent TV ad.

“I don’t think yarn bombing or non-destructive guerrilla art is a new concept, (but) the trend of it recently in our community surely resonates,” says Lisa Fruichante, who did the Broadway yarn bombing as part of the Tacoma Pride Fest’s Out in the Park in July, and who was one of the bombers for Lovers Lane on St. Helens Avenue.

But yarn bombing goes a bit further than just prettying up a street with funky threads. Mitchell’s bike-rack sweaters cover up both graffiti and pin damage, something she, as a native Tacoman and Sixth Avenue resident, has often worked to clean up. They also prevent graffiti: “You can’t spray paint on yarn,” she says with a mischievous smile. They help protect bikes from scratches, and being acrylic they stand up to our rainy weather just fine.

Bigger yarn bombings, like those on St. Helens and the Pittsburgh Bridge, act as social catalysts, drawing attention to urban areas in need of major makeovers. They also promote the concept of art as something anyone could — and should — do for their community, without needing expensive materials or training. Yarn bombing is easy, cheap and (fairly) quick.

It also is powerful. Singly, one yarn bomber can transform a street. Collectively, the effect can be huge.

“It is about connecting and bridging communities,” said artist Amanda Gross of the Pittsburgh project in Time magazine. “(Knitting and crocheting) are extremely accessible art forms.”

The other bonus for fiber artists is to create awareness and acceptance of an art form that has often taken a low place compared to other sculptural media.

“Yarn bombing is really fascinating, because it all seems so underground,” says Metro Parks Tacoma’s Mary Tuttle, who’s coordinating a community yarn bombing event Sunday as part of the Downtown to Defiance bike ride (see information in inset with this story). “I think community members aren’t very aware of what it is. But it’s sculptural.”

“I think (yarn bombing) is increasing awareness of a specific form of fiber art that from the domestic and functional spheres spills out … onto the public domain,” says Stefano Catalani, director of the craft-art focused Bellevue Arts Museum. “Yarn bombing is just a fraction of the multifaceted potential of fiber art.”

Public education is another reason Mitchell began her bike rack sweaters: She’d been making beer growler sweaters last year to sell at Red Hot, but after selling just four at the Art on the Ave festival in July — and doing a lot of explaining — she knew she had to go bigger.

“I decided I needed more yarn awareness,” she explains.

For Mitchell, though, yarn bombing is mostly about celebrating life and creating joy. A six-year breast cancer survivor (one recent bike rack is pink, with the breast cancer ribbon crocheted on the top), she’s aware of how much humans need that joy.

“This was a way to keep my spirits up, especially now we’re into the rainy season,” Mitchell says. “I’m really thrilled with all the comments. That’s exactly what I wanted to do — to make people happy.”

Tacoma’s Yarn-Bomb sites

Tacoma has two main sites to see yarn bombing.

n Along Broadway between South Ninth and 11th streets, on the trees near Theater Square.

n Along Sixth Avenue between Alder and Fife streets, on the bike racks on both sides of the street.

n Watch for upcoming yarn bombing outside Sixth Avenue’s Red Hot, the Hob Nob and, in October, the Rainbow Center downtown.

Get your own yarn-bombing opportunity Sunday at Metro Parks Tacoma’s Downtown to Defiance bike ride, which celebrates the completion of a bike track to Point Defiance. Halfway along, at Thea’s Park (405 Dock St., Tacoma) artist Matt Levendoski will lead a community art project of yarn-bombing bikes donated by 2nd Cycle. The wrapped bikes will then be displayed at Metro Parks community centers around the city.

Downtown to Defiance runs 8 a.m.-noon Sunday, and runs from the Tacoma Dome flag plaza to Point Defiance bowl. 253-305-1000, metroparkstacoma.org.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@ thenewstribune.com

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