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Magda Sayeg is a badass yarn bomber
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Magda Sayeg is a badass yarn bomber
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Magda Sayeg is a badass yarn bomber
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"Yarn is just as bad ass as spray cans.”
Conversations
2 April 2010

Magda Sayeg is a badass yarn bomber

Interview by Anna Greer
Photography by Megan Canning

Anna Greer on Magda Sayeg

You know that whole guerilla knitting thing; lamp posts all over with woolly scarves on? Well Magda Sayeg is the woman who started it. Once upon a time she was a shop-keeper, a bit bored, who thought she’d spice her day up a little by knitting a cosy cover for her shop’s door handle. It might have just ended there, but Magda noticed how such a small thing seemed to bring smiles to peoples’ faces so she knitted covers for other things on the street.

From there it snowballed and she now does commissions all over the world decorating swanky boutique hotels in New York, old buses in Mexico and bollards in Canberra. Here’s Magda’s yarn.

This story originally ran in issue #24 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

ANNA GREER: You were in Canberra last year at the Soft Sculpture exhibition, how did that go?

MAGDA SAYEG: Everything in Canberra was very successful and Sydney was awesome too – I have a really strong feeling I’m going to go back. The meetings I had there were very positive.

What did you get up to there?

Lots of things, I was actually able to cover a lot of ground. I did the Sydney Opera House, at least three pieces there, Circular Quay, the Harbour Bridge, Bondi, Mrs Macquarie’s Chair. Usually I would have been approached by people, but I think maybe they were intimidated because there was a microphone and camera (a TV crew accompanied Magda for some of her Sydney tags). They kind of assume you know what you’re doing or you’ve got permission. I was shocked that no-one even approached me, even at the Opera House, to ask me what I was doing. I can’t believe I said it, but apparently I said to a newspaper, “There’s no freaking way I’m leaving here without doing something big” or something like that. When I read it I was like, “Oh God.” Anyway, they were warned and I did it and I did it pretty blatantly.

Do you mean the public wondering what you were doing or security?

Security. With the public it is almost like an interesting sociological test. There are these cement bollards that no-one looks at and then you put colourful knitted material on them and all of a sudden there’s this Asian group taking pictures and hugging them and children reaching out and touching them. Maybe that is the reason security didn’t approach me. Maybe they realised the tourists liked it.

Have you ever been accosted by security?

I have a few times, when I’ve been told to take it down. You’ll see on my website I have many pictures with cop cars in the background, or a cop standing right next to one. There was a security guard who came by at the Sydney Opera House, who just walked right by us, and we have a picture of it. I’ll come up with excuses though. I find the authorities don’t really question you if it has to do with the army. Once I was up on 20 foot ladder and I said I was decorating for a soldier who was coming home. I may go to hell [laughs]! And

This story originally ran in issue #24 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #24 of Dumbo Feather

once I said I was from a church youth group and I was doing a scavenger hunt for the kids.

It definitely got them to leave me alone. Those times were in my first six months. I haven’t had to come up with any excuses since then.

Do your kids travel with you?

They didn’t come to Australia, but they were going to. Generally I take them everywhere. I’ve taken them to Paris, New York, Mexico City … they love coming with me on these projects. If I were to come back I hope I could bring them, particularly because it looks like I’ll be coming back in the summer. It’s getting really exciting for me. If you can imagine I’ve been doing this now for four years.

Tell us about how Knitta started.

I began Knitta Please in 2005. It started very innocently and then I let it take over my life. It was very unambitious, very selfish actually, I just wanted to wrap the door handle to my shop, Raye, (in Houston) … I had a clothing shop … [Magda’s husband Dan enters and a short conversation ensues]

You’re welcome to join us.

DAN: No, no, I’m the silent partner.

I opened the shop because I have a passion for design and textiles. I really liked it but Knitta was born from total boredom, sitting at the desk just going, “God, why does life seem so unsatisfying,” and I thought, maybe if I throw some knitting on this door handle it will at least cheer me up for the moment and it sort of did. People who passed by the shop really liked the door handle so I decided I wanted to do the stop sign down the street and that’s where the unfinished projects idea came in … I called up a friend and tried to describe what I was doing. It clearly wasn’t grabbing her, but she was really happy to offer her unfinished baby blanket. That was our first piece and it was so much fun. People got out of their car that time, stopped, took pictures in front of it, touched it and brushed their heads against it. It was clearly causing a stir and this was just a door handle and a stop sign! I was ready to lay it on. We did every stop sign pole in the whole neighbourhood and then started to come up with all sorts of fun ideas, like antenna cosies – we would tag peoples’ cars and put this knitted piece on their antennas. I just closed my shop this summer because I felt it had run its course and I wanted to make room for other ventures in my life like Knitta and my life here in Austin. Closing the store has freed up an amazing amount of energy that I now put into Knitta, but again, I wholeheartedly loved Raye and managed to keep it going for years alongside my Knitta venture. Knitta became truly full-time this past year when I moved to Austin and wasn’t in the physical day-to-day running of Raye any longer. Now it’s dictated the last four years of my life. As an adult it kind of makes you rethink how life is; the plan and what’s going to be thrown at you. I’ve had ambitious ideas before but they’ve not really turned into anything.

How has it made you rethink how life works?

I guess I mean that I was in this groove as an ‘adult’ and

I didn’t expect that any little thing I could do – an impulse or idea – would be able to spur such far reaching changes

in my day-to-day life. My expectations have been blown away by the opportunities extended to me through my art. It’s tested my flexibility and made me reevaluate at every step. Like, in 2006 I got my first request for a commission at Seattle’s Bumbershoot Festival. On one level, without thinking, it was like, “Yes! I’ll do this”, but I also knew I was entering Knitta into a new phase. It wasn’t something I was going to do on boring Tuesday nights in my neighborhood anymore. This was going to be a big thing. I’ve had to rethink priorities as it’s shifted to such a global presence.

You must be famous in Houston.

Well, famous, but they call it the ‘hometown syndrome’, where they’re kind of over it, you know. I do it in Austin now too and Austin is actually pretty cool – they’re actually very happy and excited about it. I guess I kind of re-enact it all.

Over and over again in every city.

I know! What’s wrong with me? Do I need reconfirmation? No, it’s really fun and, like I said, I think as with any artist you have to keep it fresh and I’ve been able to do that. I’m so excited about the different things I’m doing; the different commissions and the possibilities of using alternative materials. I’m not just using yarn now, I’m using other things like heavy duty materials and I’m thinking about dying my own yarn. I think that would be really interesting because I do feel like there is colour lacking down those craft-store aisles. I mean really, even with this new DIY movement and everything moving towards people learning a craft in some way or another, I feel like you go down the aisles of the craft stores and it still caters only to your grandma and it’s all kind of filtered through this soft lens. The people who are the spokespeople in America for knitting are like … one of them is Vanna White who is famous for turning letters on a game show, and for some reason she’s the person who has this bland line of yarn. Where is that person who likes good design and obviously keeps up with fashion, but also enjoys crafting and knitting?

Why is there that disconnect? It would be really nice if they made things that had more thought to their design and colour sense and everything.

Do you get yarn donations?

I still get them and I love my yarn donations – they’re the best. What’s interesting now, in my later years of doing this, are all the people that I wouldn’t have even considered might want to be a part of what I’m doing are now wanting to be a part of it. So, what I thought was more on the graffiti side of things is now something that larger companies are wanting to be involved with. The National Yarn Council wants me to go to their conferences and Lion, a wool brand, want to sponsor anything that comes up. There are only four big yarn companies and Lion is one of them.

Why do you think these companies have had such an interest in your work?

I’m now figuring it out, you know. I’ve been analysing this over and over again, trying to understand why this is such a good thing for people, especially corporations. I think it’s because it does bring out the community. What happens is that I’ll do these projects that are really community oriented and it turns out they’re PR dreams. I don’t think the soft sculpture exhibit [in Canberra] realised the media attention they would get. I was surprised too and because of it they had more people come in at the end of the show than they did at the beginning. They said that they were overwhelmed by the support. I mean, we had over 500 pieces donated from places all around Australia and outside of Australia too. There were three parts of the project. I was able to do my own thing, so I got my creative bug out there, and then I made the community project happen. People made their own pieces and we wrapped the columns at the front entrance in them. The third part was that I did lots of workshops and lectures and pieces in the sculpture garden. The community part took up most of my time – I basically became the installer for three days, connecting all these scarves together end to end and then wrapping these columns.

My friend was down there. She had pictures of the short fat columns at the entrance.

Yeah, that was my project, I liked how that looked – there were 23 of them. Because I started off doing antenna cosies and stop-sign poles, I still do that. When I come to a new city, like Sydney or Canberra, that I’ve never been to before, it’s really important for me to do all the things that got me here in the first place. It’s also really important for me, as my work has progressed, to do like – I mean never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be wrapping a bus in Mexico City.

I saw that!

Yeah, it was over the top. It’s still there. At first I was really disappointed that it was a non-functional bus, but what was cool about it was that this bus was perched in this park that was really well trafficked. They hollowed out the interior so people were lured in by the knitted material on the bus and if they wanted to learn how to knit or if they wanted to learn ceramics – they held classes in the bus.

It seems like the public receives this kind of street art quite well, but how do you feel about people who criticise your work as vandalism?

People who spend their time dissing something that’s really so fucking harmless in this day and age – I mean there are little girls being stoned to death in Africa. It’s really not something outlandishly offensive and it isn’t defacing property, so I dismiss the idea that it’s actually vandalism.

That to me is the least tolerable criticism. I’m taking this craft that is really familiar and bringing it into a different context, which I think, on the most part, has been quite successful. But yeah, there is always going to be that 10 per cent. There are graffiti artists who hate me and I think it’s because I’m not conforming to an arrogant male … I’m sorry, I don’t feel the need to have a particular persona in order to get legitimacy from that area. I think yarn is bad-ass, just as bad-ass, if not more so, than spray cans. It’s also been with us from the beginning of our time. If you think about it, there is so much that is threaded in our lives, DNA for instance. Thread and what you can do with it is amazing. I don’t want to get too artsy about it, but I don’t think that because you can make a jumper with it, that means that you can’t do anything else with it. It is still powerful and compelling. I think that is what people are engaged with. Jeff Koons is one of my favourite artists – it’s interesting how he takes things that are familiar, like a balloon, one of those dog balloons, and he brings nostalgia to it and puts it in the context of a museum. That is what catches our attention I think, and I think I’m doing that with knitting. People are familiar with it and they’re familiar with it for many reasons. People usually associate it with something good. I can’t think of any reason it would bring up memories of something bad because you knit because you love, you knit for someone you care about.

It brings up nostalgia, it brings up warm feelings, thoughts, memories. That’s what it did for me. That first piece was a cold door handle that was inanimate and I wanted it to be warm and fuzzy and make me feel good. It didn’t really go beyond that – any more thought or ambition, but when I realised I liked it and other people liked it, that was when I wanted to continue doing it. The criticism that amazes me these days, especially from the older generation, is that it pisses them off that I’m using knitted material for something that is non-utilitarian. I mean if that was the case, why would we use wood for anything other than houses, or clay for anything other than bricks? There’s a story that I talk about in my lectures … When the holocaust was over everyone’s main concern was to get these emaciated women from the camps fed, clothed and nourished, but this one man spent quite a bit of money buying them all lipstick. Clearly there was no use for it, but when he distributed the lipstick and the women put it on their faces, they actually lit up, they started smiling, and that to me is the perfect point. Not everything has to be about the basics of life and what we need in terms of just living.

Sometimes we need things that don’t have to do with the basics and just have to do with feeding your soul.

People undervalue that part and it is really important – even people that don’t necessarily think that they are into art. Sometimes you look at a flower and you smile, sometimes you look at bird up in the sky and you smile. These things are visual and I think are necessary in every day life

What does the act of knitting do for you? What do you get from it?

I began knitting when I was 15. I think I wanted to make a scarf for my boyfriend or something, but then I discovered that I really liked having my hands busy. It was therapeutic to have my hands moving, knowing what they were doing without having to think about it. I love knitting any time I’m sitting in front of the TV, waiting for something, or when I just need to calm and centre. It’s like my chamomile tea.

There seems to be a resurgence happening of this crafting culture.

Yeah, I think it was probably bound to happen. [Dan re-enters]

I’ve been thinking about it a bit lately because my mother was amazing with all this craft stuff but she never passed on that knowledge to me. I think it was because she was taught from a very young age by her mother and it was an obligation – she had to learn how to clothe her children.

Dan’s mother is an incredible knitter. This is what you did, it wasn’t really a special talent. Everybody knitted and you knew how to make things at a very young age. She’s my machine though. She gets excited and is like, “What else do you want me to make?” She gets creative, she’ll make argyles on there or she’ll put letters on there. She’s gone to Paris with me, she has gone to New York with me, she is one of the Knittas, ‘Granny Squared’.

[To Dan] Are you the male Knitta?

DAN: No. [laughs]

He’s becoming one. He used to like to keep it separate, but he’s really becoming the installer.

DAN: If it’s over a metre or two up the ladder I’m the one up there.

Really I don’t know how I could have done the bus in Mexico without him. I brought a bunch of material and I was there and I was like, “I don’t know how to make this happen.”

How long did it take you?

Four days, with a big group of people. About four to six adults helped us throughout the process. That was a really good project. Now it just seems like a fond memory, but it’s just one of the really great pieces. I became intimately involved with that piece, I wanted to take it home, it felt like another child. It was really sad to leave. I think everyone felt really connected to it.

Will you go back to Mexico City to visit it?

I was thinking about it … It’s been there a year now.

It’s surprising how well the pieces handle the weather. Where I live people have started to do guerrilla knitting and they’ve been there for a while. I thought that the weather would be far harsher on them, but they’ve held up really well.

Well, maybe Australia is more temperate. Honestly there’s something even interesting to me about a piece that is very vibrant that you see slowly fading into what it’s covering. It turns sort of grey … There are pieces that have completely disappeared off poles in New York because of the pollution or what not, the exhaust in the air. I’m really curious about the Mexico City piece because it’s been there for a year now and that city is very polluted. That city gets so much crap but I think it’s amazing. I think I could live there for a while. I want to go back. It should be a yearly thing, especially living so close to it.

When did you decide to do away with the anonymity of it, or was that just for fun?

The anonymity served a purpose. It was sort of like, we’re a little nervous about what we’re doing, we are doing it graffiti style, we don’t really know what people would think of it and there were people in the group who didn’t want to get in trouble so we embraced it. We decided to have a good time with it and so we came up with names over a bottle of wine so they got better and better; PolyCotN, Akrylik, Perl Necklace, Granny Squared, P. Knitty, Masculiknitty.

They all came under our gang Knitta Please and it all just kind of perfectly fitted together. It did make sense for at least a year to stay like that and then it just got awkward and silly to keep on trying with it, especially when there were things happening like TV crews from Sweden being flown down for interviews with us. We clearly got the idea that it was no longer necessary. If we were fearing that people didn’t like us? Well, okay they did. That was covered. If we were fearing we were going to get in trouble? Well, so far we hadn’t. Then people wanted to see us, there was more and more coverage. BBC did the same thing. We were flown to Paris.

At some point you realise you can unveil, you can unmask and it will be okay.

They want to see you, they want to talk to you and you also have something to say. I realised there was no reason for me to hide it, and in fact I wanted to explain it, especially when people were calling me the ‘mother of yarn bombing’ and the ‘founder of knit graffiti’. That was an awesome moment for me. I got to talk about why I thought it was important and compelling; that it’s not just silly and fun, but that it can be inspiring and there is something empowering about it.

Have you trademarked Knitta Please?

Yeah, that was one of the things I learned early on from other artists we know who actually make a living, are successful at it – the unsexy side of legitimising your business. They all said that if you love your art then you’ve got to do this, otherwise you are doing a disservice to your vision and you won’t be able to continue it either. What was happening was that there were a lot of people using the name and then confusion set in because media requests would come to this girl, a random high school girl in Milwaukee or something, who had my name. We had to straighten it out. She wasn’t bad at all, she was cool giving it back to me. Also, there were twelve members in the group at one time and I think that is when disorganisation set in. It got really popular and I was like, “Yeah you can join the club”, and then ultimately it was like, “Wow we have really different sensibilities. What you want to do with Knitta is different to what I want to do.” That’s when I knew I really wanted it back to just me or a few people. I didn’t even know some of the people that were in the group, and I didn’t even remember some of their names. They slowly left for whatever reason; work, or a job, or kids, I just kept it and I didn’t recruit anymore.

Did you ever imagine this is where your calling would be?

Not at all. It’s the coolest thing that’s ever happened in my life. I’m 35 and I’ve never done anything that’s allowed me to travel around the world. As an adult it kind of makes you rethink how life is – the plan and what’s going to be thrown at you. I’ve had ambitious ideas, but they’ve not really turned into anything.

What’s your biggest achievement?

I’m pretty proud of the fact people are calling me the founder of this movement. There’s something that really warms my heart about that.

The large scale pieces I’m proud of too. After this year I will be able to tell you two or three more things because if all goes well I’ll be able to do permanent installations in parks in New York … and if they go well I might be able to do others in other places. I love that my projects have always been different. I’m still the person who puts knitting out in the urban environment, but none of my projects are the same. I’ve been able to approach each site specifically and uniquely and customise it. That makes me feel really lucky because it doesn’t get stale or monotonous and repetitive. Things get really boring to me quickly, so if I can keep on this path of being able to do these installations, work with these great people, and then delve into other little areas, I think I’ll be very proud by the end of 2010. I have all these ideas I’ve always thought would be great but have never before had the resources to make it happen.

Big things ahead?

Yeah, I think so.

Do you have a favourite piece so far?

It’s almost like picking a favourite child. Sometimes it’s the smallest piece. There is this one in SoHo that is just this tiny green one … There are things in Italy that I did that I loved because they matched so well and the bright colours were like little exclamation marks of colour.

I don’t really have a favourite, but there are still moments, like the taxi cab tags were really funny – we’d be sitting in a cab and they’re completely clueless … I really loved the installation we did at the hotel The Standard. It was one of the first, more intimidating commissioned pieces … Here we were at this uber-hip hotel and they’re just telling us to ‘do work’ inside the black box that their live model sits in for 12 hours a day. What’s funny is that for six months I had this whole other idea for it and then in the last month it dawned on me that we should make her look like a mermaid. We made hundreds of threads of seaweed, it was a real fail- proof project, like, make them out of any colour – yellow, blue, green, grey even – and make them any width, they just have to be about five feet long. Then we dangled them all and put fans on them. When you turned the fans on it really did kind of sway like seaweed and she really did look like this trapped fish of some sort. It started this really great relationship with the hotel and I’ve been invited back over and over again. During Fashion Week there’s a new hotel in New York I’m going to be doing an installation for.

That’s exciting.

When you really do give up your day job and you call yourself ‘an artist’, it’s scary.

I think that’s my only fear right now, but I’m doing it and I’m actually busy and doing all the things I’ve dreamed of doing. I feel lucky, I feel really good right now.

You mean you don’t have a day job any more and are able to make a living out of Knitta Please installations and activities somehow, or do you do other things ‘on the side’?

I guess I was speaking in psychological instead of financial terms. The implications of being an artist, pouring your energy into something that isn’t necessarily conventional by any standard, has been challenging. I still run Cafe Brasil along with a cool indie bookstore called Domy with my husband, but my day-to-day consists mainly of Knitta – developing new projects and putting my energy into the creative side. It’s the coolest thing that’s ever happened in my life. I’m 35 and I’ve never done anything that’s allowed me to travel around the world.

I liked your Great Wall of China piece, it was subtle.

We do try to be reverent. I mean we’re not trying to be irreverent. That’s one of the misleading notions about what I do. I don’t want to be called the wacky knitter who goes and puts bikinis and sunglasses on statues, because I’m not. To me, I want it to feel like when I see a statue or anything like a good garden or a good tree, I feel like that’s what’s good about urban planning. They’re doing their people good, that’s what we want. I really try to keep it to things that are unnoticed, like that little pipe that is sticking out of an old brick building in SoHo, or that rusty pole that doesn’t even have a sign on it anymore that is still there, or the fire hydrant or the dead man’s shoes thrown over the wire when there’s 15 wires up in the sky that are blocking the clouds. There are things like that I like doing and I keep my work kind of in that area.

That’s interesting, so you keep it in the vein of challenging the urban landscape but in a less destructive way?

What’s interesting is that I was invited to be part of the Triennale in Milan and then I was invited back for Design Week. I realised there was this new attention to my work from this higher brow academic world and it’s because they’re wondering why this work is catching so much attention. What is lacking in the urban environment that people are drawn to it? How can we bring colour, softness, human connection … those qualities of this work, into the urban environment and urban planning in a permanent way? I was brought to these places to talk to these people, and not only was I shocked and honoured, but it also reconfirmed to me that I was doing something that was more than just silly little tags on streets and it wasn’t this irreverent approach. I mean it was always reverent, if anything maybe it was more political than I thought it was in the beginning, but it was never meant to give a giant “fuck you” to other artists and their statues or their work. And that’s why I think that people have brought me to different places. I’m very happy in that position, having the old, young, hipsters here and grandmas here, who really like what I’m doing.

Anna Greer

Anna is a Jivamukti Yoga Teacher, writer and activist from Sydney, Australia. Anna loves that Jivamukti Yoga inspires us all to ‘be the change’. Her teachers and the teachings of yoga have inspired her to action and service with Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

https://yogannarchist.com/

Photography by Megan Canning

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