BY TILLA BUDEN
Nearly 10 years ago a few ladies, a few drinks, and a knitting circle that refused to stay indoors started a textile graffiti revolution that swept the world. At the heart of it was Magda Sayeg, commonly known as the mother of yarn bombing. It all began when she started the knitting circle. Instead of knitting jumpers for friends and family, they took their stitching to the streets, making cozy clothes for public architecture. Soon enough a global movement was in motion, and people from all round the world have been coming to Magda for inspiration and advice ever since.
We had a chat with her about yarn bombing from Texas to Taiwan, the changing face of street art, and the time the Guinness Book of World Records came calling.
So what are you working on at the moment, Magda?
I have a few things going on. I’m doing something locally here. It’s a new space that I’m covering, and what’s fun about it is that I get to do different things, like I’m weaving with plastic thread now, and glow in the dark thread, so it’s kind of cool. I’m in discussion with a company, or an agency out of Rio in Brazil, to do something that is around the big Cristo statue. I don’t think I would do anything on it, but it is kind of an honour that they’re contacting me to do something that would be community oriented, so I’m excited about that. That won’t happen until June, I’m assuming I’ll have a site visit sometime in January for that.
I’ll be part of a show in Sweden, I think in May, and in between that I’m doing a lot of product design right now. It’s really fun. I’ve had to work like crazy, it’s the busiest summer of my life. I went around the world twice for Knitta, so although I seem completely busy all the time, it definitely is not even half the load that I had this summer. I mean, I started in Australia and then ended in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Bali, with a little bit in Europe. It was insane.
When it all began did you ever imagine this is where it could end up?
Absolutely not, but I think that’s probably the magic of why it occurred the way it did. It was the most unambitious idea I’ve ever had. It was just really for my own selfish pursuit, I just wanted to see knitting in my own world and little did I know that it would change the course of my life. I mean, not to sound so dramatic, but how else do you explain it? I was not doing this at all, I didn’t even think this would be in the cards – the kind of travels that I’ve done, the experiences I’ve had, even just being able to use my left side of my brain as much as I have. I’ve always lived and worked in a creative environment, but not to this capacity.
It’s really taken over your life entirely…
Yes, absolutely. The first couple of years I used to think this is going to be the last big project, you know, and I still considered it a hobby. Then there was that day that I just decided to quit my day job and do it full on, and it was probably the best decision I made, because I’ve had some of the greatest projects and experiences since then.
How long have you been doing it full-time for?
It’s almost on its ninth year now. I guess I’ve probably been doing it now for four and a half years as a full-time job.
That’s amazing. So, can you take us back to the early days of how this all started?
Well it went rather quickly because of the internet. I don’t think this would have happened as quickly if it wasn’t for that… So, basically I gathered a group of mainly woman and kind of had my own knitting circle, we just didn’t make jumpers or baby blankets, we tagged the streets with our knitting, and we basically did it for fun. I mean, yes, there was a little bit of excitement in the dangerousness of it, the illegal kind of connotations that were happening with it. Although they were very innocent, it was still kind of dangerous in a way, more dangerous than any of us had been, and then the fact that it just gave us a good excuse to get together and drink some beer or wine and go out and do something fun together. The energy was great, it was sort of this collective, this grass-roots movement, where we all wanted to do something that was subversive with this craft, and it worked. The part that I wasn’t aware of was just the kind of impact that it would have on the rest of the world. Once one local magazine wrote about us it went viral, and all of a sudden there were international media requests.
How did the group respond to that? Because the danger apparently seemed quite real at first, you even had pseudonyms, and you were quite underground. To suddenly hit the headlines – how did everyone respond within the group?
I think that there were predictable growing pains. A lot of people liked it, a lot of people were scared of it. At max there were 12 people in the group, so it wasn’t massive. I did feel that after the first year, with people coming and going from the group… I kind of had this solid vision of what I felt it should be, and when the group sort of disbanded I felt like that may be a good thing because there were people that were like, this is too much for me and I don’t know if I want to do this, or they liked it for its simplicity of what it was just as us, a group of girls being kind of silly. When it became bigger, there were some people that embraced it and some people that decided to walk the other way, which I respect. I think that it was my baby, I wanted to see it still stay alive and I did that and the proof is in the pudding because my next project, the first solo oriented project that I did, was the bus in Mexico City which was wonderful. It instilled in me the kind of evidence I needed, the confirmation I needed, that this was right, that this is something I need to continue doing.
And the images of that piece are amazing, that’s become just such an iconic piece.
Yes, and I didn’t even know that. I mean, I knew I was excited about it, but to see it still circulate, and it’s on some of those crazy emails it seems like only our parents or uncles or older people get, where it’s like 15 of the most amazing pictures in the world… It just blows my mind that it can even fall into a category that’s so special. It’s the thing that spring boarded my career. It has to remain my favourite project just because it really opened the media attention to include everyone. At first I understood people from industry magazines like knitting magazines or graffiti magazines, people like that kind of paying attention to my work, but then after the bus the Guinness Book of World Records called me up and asked if it was the largest object of yarn bombing, which, even the question blew my mind.
That’s fantastic. Is it the largest object so far?
I think since then people have gotten nuts over it. I mean, I may have started it and people may have coined me the mother of yarn bombing, but I certainly don’t own it anymore. It is truly international and I think that an example of why I believe that is now somebody’s coined an international yarn bombing day in June and there’s almost 15,000 people on my Facebook and to me it’s not even my Facebook, it’s a forum for people to kind of find other people to do yarn bombing…
How do you feel about that? Are you happy with that?
Yes, absolutely. I must tell you that I don’t really tag any stop sign poles anymore, but I don’t think anybody would, that was nine years ago for me and to keep myself engaged in my work I definitely stand at the boundaries of knitting. I’ve gone from that bus in Mexico City to doing stop motion animation where I’ve made my knitted creatures come to life, and then I travelled just almost everywhere in summer where I covered a street food cart in Taiwan, and I covered the balconies of a hotel in Switzerland. I mean, to me, it’s going beyond yarn bombing. Yarn bombing by definition is something you do that’s unsanctioned, without permission. I think I’m now like a lot of graffiti artists or artists that started on the streets, they ultimately progress onto museum walls or gallery walls or commission based work, and that’s sort of where I’m at now. I would need to do something beyond just what I started doing. I mean, I was a young 30, now I’m almost in my 40s, so things change and I think that my work has organically grown with me and kept me interested.
I guess that’s what happens, life happens and you grow up and change… Have you had any backlash against that or are people happy with the changes you’ve made?
Well, I think that there’s just an assumption that I am doing trees and the urban environment. I mean, I still love seeing knitting in the urban environment, I will love that always, but I do mostly commissioned stuff. I think that it’s interesting because I’m still being miscredited for things, and that part is probably more frustrating than anything for me because I didn’t do it, and sometimes the work isn’t even that great, so I’m especially adamant I definitely did not do that. As far as the backlash, I think people are going to criticise if you do anything beyond remaining on the streets, and I’m really happy to see myself progress and continue doing work and making a living off of it, which is amazing. Knitting is my vehicle, that’s a story in itself, in my opinion.
Absolutely. The yarn bombing term, do you know where that actually came from? Is that something you came up with or did someone apply it to you and your work?
Somebody applied it, but I know it came up after what I started. If there was a word that I can say I came up with, it was just a couple of words that I just described what I was doing, because I didn’t even formulate what I was doing in my head it was so kind of innate and still sort of in raw form in my brain, so when people asked what I was doing I would just say it’s part knit and part graffiti, because I was taking my knitting out on the streets graffiti style. I identified with the graffiti artist, not with the knitter, but instead of a spray can I used what I would be most naturally inclined to pick up, which are needles. I think that’s something I should be proud of, and not feel like I have to be a surrogate male and act like I should pick up a spray can because that’s what defines street art, and I think that’s what’s cool about what’s happening in street art, it’s not just about the spray can and it’s not just about tagging your name above a freeway, people are doing amazing stuff. I’m inspired more by what I see on the streets that what I’ve seen in museums lately.
Yeah. It’s really breaking out, huh?
Yes, I mean, it’s not, it’s no longer something that we can ignore, it’s something that even cities and urban planners and people that are in those authoritative positions are paying attention to. Ten years ago they wouldn’t be hiring graffiti artists to spray paint a wall or some sort of like park, and now they do that more and I think it’s a good thing.
It’s quite a hot topic. There is such a massive street art movement happening, and now there is some government funding going towards supporting it fights are breaking out across the tabloids. It’s an interesting thing, and that must be happening all around the world…
Yes, I definitely see that happening all over the world. I sometimes compare it to skate parks. I grew up when the skater kids had nowhere to skate. They were constantly being told off and yelled at, now the newest thing to show up in a city is your cool public skate park, or at least that’s what happens here in America. I feel the same thing is happening with street art, and how can it not be ignored…
I think that that’s the sadness about how we exist now where we’re so digitized, we’re so technologically inclined. We spend more time on the computer and less with humans. I mean, we keep a phone in our hands or a TV controller, and we don’t do anything else with our hands other than that. So I feel like the time is good, it’s so ripe for us to participate more in our environment instead of just being in our caves and kind of living vicariously through whatever we’re watching on TV or whatnot.
So we should get outside and knit, huh?
Knit, or just even express yourself in whatever way pleases you, or even just allow yourself to be receptive to others. I think that all of that is good. I think that what happens is there’s these permanent fixtures where cities will have some piece of artwork or an installation that happened so many decades ago that it’s hard to keep it connected with the people that are in that, living with it now, and that’s where I think the argument for semi-permanent installations is good because it keeps people connected with their surroundings. Not to diss our ancient relics and our beautiful statues of a time passed, but I do think that there’s more that a city needs to do, it doesn’t stop there, like 30 years ago, it needs to continue.
I’ve seen a piece of yours that re-engages with one of those statues where you’ve knitted little sheaths for his weapon…
Yes, and it’s important to me to not be so boastful or presumptuous or even ignorant or obnoxious with the way I approach a statue, and I must admit that I’ve seen people that have done that and all under the guise of yarn bombing which I’m certainly not proud of. I can say that I don’t think it’s the best thing to do. I think there is a respectful approach, and with that statue I brought enough material to cover that entire statue, but I sat there for a good hour and I looked at the statue and I felt that what made most sense is to cover up the weapons that represent war. I mean, this guy, he was an Indonesian hero, and that’s great, but I feel like still, in essence, he used these weapons to kill other people and that’s something that has baffled me since I was a child, that war means you’re killing. So that was a way for me to sort of re-sensitize ourselves to that one piece of it, that still represents something that’s kind of sad about war.
You’re dealing with big issues there, and yet it’s a really sort of gentle and powerful way to engage with it that is respectful, as you say, but it’s funny as well. It’s light and heavy at the same time. It’s quite amazing, the power of textiles, to do that.
Well, I think that textiles are something that we all live with, almost the entire world understands what it is to weave something and clothe someone, and it will always have good feelings, good attributes to it. I’ve been quoted saying this so it might be tiring to say it, but no-one knits for hate, you knit for love most of the time. I think that’s what starts people and alerts them to what my work or what knitting is on the streets, is that it brings this human quality to an otherwise sort of unhuman environment. We see more steel and cement and less about anything that has to do with human touch or feeling. I don’t want to come off like I’m a super-political person, I’m not. I mean, when it comes right down to it, at the end of the day, it is so funny to see knitting on a stop sign pole, it’s hilarious to see a fire hydrant with a hat on it, and all of a sudden you think the fire hydrant’s cute and you want to take it home. I love it.
But if you want me to analyse it, at some point in my own personal journey with this I couldn’t just laugh at it, clearly there was long lasting power to what was happening with yarn bombing and knit graffiti, and even if you don’t like it, you have to kind of acknowledge the fact that it has had this strong presence and this powerful meaning to so many people around the world. I mean, people of different languages, of different beliefs, in this world of uncertainty that we live in, there is this one little thing that a handful of people, in the big picture, do, that is this universal language, and I love that. The little ways that you can bring peace into these little facets of people’s lives. Of course no artist is going to solve war or help feed the homeless or warm a child that’s unclothed, but there is something that’s very special about connecting with someone from so far away, even if it is something as simple and innocent as knitting in your surroundings.