In the world of graffiti, a secret identity is as essential as spray paint and Sharpies. When you think "graffiti artist," what do you envision? A shadowy figure in a hoodie, slipping past razor wire into a train yard, quickly executing tags—always watchful for guard dogs and cops—before vanishing into the night.
And then there's Knitta. On a recent Seattle visit, two members of this Houston crew hit targets in Ballard, Capitol Hill, and Belltown. They left tags on Western Bridge, in cafes including Bauhaus and the Globe, and at a busy Fremont intersection, all unannounced and unauthorized. Often, they worked in broad daylight. Trust me—I was there. One minute I played lookout as the artists, who go by the names PolyCotN and The Knotorious N.I.T., wrapped a strategically chosen street sign in a six-foot-long scarf, quickly securing it in place with zip ties, on Ballard Avenue. The next minute, we celebrated with fresh-baked sweets at Cupcake Royale.
How can Knitta be so brazen? Simple: Folks don't know what to make of them, because they work in acrylic, wool, and cotton, not Krylon. Scrawling your name in wet cement is clear-cut vandalism. Tagging a subway car? People call it graffiti, maybe even evoke Keith Haring and Futura 2000 to discuss it. But swathing a lamppost in fuzzy stripes just baffles the hell out of people. No wonder early Dadaists like Sophie Taeuber loved to integrate "domestic arts" into their practices.
Two months ago, a couple Knittas visited New York. One morning, as PolyCotN was perched on a colleague's shoulders, affixing a piece, a pedestrian confronted them. PolyCotN just smiled and said it was a project for their church youth group. The witness accepted this answer. Naturally. Knitting is so wholesome. This couldn't possibly be illegal, right? Well, it is.
Graffiti confronts authority and the assigned roles of public objects; what you see as a mailbox, the graffiti artist views as a potential canvas. A Knitta spies a bike rack, and suddenly knows what to do with that unfinished sweater from last winter. But by integrating a so-called domestic art, one often viewed as quaint, Knitta overturns entrenched notions of how knitting and graffiti are supposed to function in society.
They also call into question stereotypes about gender. As a man who knits, I am astonished at how people respond when they come upon guys wielding needles in public. Tourists take our photos. They ask what we're doing, when it should be patently obvious: knitting. Yet when guys knit—or do needlepoint, or sew—people automatically assume we're engaged in a highfalutin thesis project or performance piece. Why? As Debbie Stoller notes in Stitch 'N Bitch: The Knitter's Handbook, as recently as World War II, men too young, old, or unfit for service knitted blankets and socks for GIs. It was part of the war effort. Yet I was never nervous for the Knittas—none of whom have ever been arrested—except when a man, i.e. me, was conspicuously assisting them.
On the flip side, the public seems reluctant to consider what Knitta does graffiti because it is executed primarily by women. (There is one dude, MascuKnitity, in the official Knitta crew.) In Houston, some critics have complained that they should do something useful with these skills: Why not make sweaters for the homeless? ("We live in Texas," notes PolyCotN dryly. "The homeless don't need sweaters.") They miss the point entirely: The simple act of slapping a jaunty hat on a fire hydrant not only beautifies the urban landscape, it triggers topics for conversation or meditation. Can a craft become art just by virtue of how and why it is displayed? Does incurring risk of arrest or physical injury (as in some of Knitta's big, precarious pieces) defuse knitting's stigma as quaint?
These issues and others will be addressed in Softly Threatening: Artwork of the Modern Domestic, a group show curated by Yoko Ott for Bumbershoot 2006. Along with Knitta—who will be hitting some very big (think landmark-sized) Seattle targets on their Labor Day return—artists like Australia's Brett Alexander, London's Craig Fisher, and New Yorker Orly Cogan will confront preconceptions about the applied arts, via everything from subversive candy making to soft-sculpture weaponry.
And on the evening of Saturday, September 2, the Knitta crew will host a workshop. The plan is to offer instructions for making some of their basic tags, like car antennae sleeves. The artists will go by their Knitta handles, but won't hide behind a screen, or cover up in sunglasses and wigs. Anonymity may be part of the traditional graffiti artist's bag of tricks, but until public perception changes, the Knittas don't even have to guard their identities as closely as any John Doe knitting outside a Starbucks does.