On Yarn Bombing and Ethics

Yarn Bombing

Olek, aka the bad girl of yarn bombing who doesn’t consider herself a yarn bomber, is in the middle of controversy again.


Photo credit: Olek for Pangeaseed. Isla Mujeres, Mexico. August 2014 (photo © Pangeaseed)

Last week, she wrapped pieces in Cancun’s Underwater Museum with her signature camo-graffiti crochet in a campaign to “save our seas” supported by PangeaSeed, who, according to their website, is an international organization who collaborates with members of the art, science, and environmental activist communities.

Monday, Artnet News reported that Mexican authorities and the Underwater Museum were looking to press charges as Olek had allegedly tampered with the museum’s art without permission and damaged sea life growing on the statutes in a protected wildlife area in the process of creating her uninvited installation.

Here is a video produced by PangeaSeed that shows Olek’s installation in process with an audio of her project rationale:

This is an interesting ethnical dilemma – on both sides there are individuals who are passionate about our oceans and marine life.

Questions arise: Is a barnacle’s life worth less than a shark? Does an artist making her mark on a landscape for political reasons of the entire oceans’ health trump a few individuals concern one small patch of ocean? Is this a stunt that uses an artists’ celebrity for attention, or will it be an effective campaign to make active change? Does the Underwater Museum already call attention to PangeaSeed’s concerns by shining the spotlight on our oceans through art already?

Over the years, I have been repeatedly asked two very specific questions about yarn bombing – which this project brings up again. Here’s my attempt to give the best answers I can, from what I’ve gleaned from talking to those who create political work and those who want to stick in the realm of cute and cozy.

1. Is Yarn Bombing Illegal?

Yarn bombing, unless done with the permission of a host organization or a private property owner, is illegal. Most municipalities encourage it, but some do not. If you are installing something without permission – it IS graffiti.

From day one, Mandy (my Yarn Bombing co-author) and I have always encouraged new yarn bombers to assess their personal risk level – ask yourself, are you willing to get caught? Are you willing to get arrested?

If yes, proceed with caution. If not, don’t. Graffiti is a crime and those who partake in it consistently take risks to make this kind of art. Yes, yarn bombing is generally considered a warm and fuzzy activity, but sometimes it is not. Some artists paint pictures of kittens and unicorns, some paint our worst nightmares. Why should we assume that the yarn bombing world only represents one spectrum of opinion? Just as with any other art form, yarn bombing represents human behaviour  – a wildly diverse and unpredictable variable if there ever was one.

2. Is Yarn Bombing damaging?

Yarn bombing can be damaging. Let’s not pretend that it can’t be.

Unlike spray paint which sticks to a surface, generally yarn will eventually be cut away from a surface or rot away but it can mark surfaces, or restrict access, or be adhered with materials that are damaging.

Trees are often what people are concerned with. I’ve heard concerns on both side. I’ve had an arborist tell me that as long as knitting on a tree didn’t restrict a tree’s growth or sap production, it’s fine. I’ve had another scientist tell me that it could eventually hamper the tree’s growth or attract insects who would want to kill the tree. Some yarn bombers take it upon themselves to remove knitting when it starts to look old; others leave it up to chance and weather. Natural fibers droop and fade, synthetics look good longer but essentially never biodegrade. If you live in a rainy climate, like I do, things will rot. If you live in a desert, it might last forever. Animals may take it into their habitat, bugs might suffocate under it. Just as we flip-flop over paper vs plastic, there isn’t a perfect answer to this question.

My main suggestions for yarn bombers is to:

  1. Do as little damage as possible – fix your work to a surface that cannot be altered (I’ve heard suggestions of using spray foam to adhere knitting to a surface – the horrors)
  2. Make sure that your work does not create a situation dangerous for other beings, make sure that they can’t trip on it or get caught in it. Don’t cover up reflective signage. Don’t destroy animal habitat. Think safety first. Do research on the site that you are planning to cover.
  3. Take responsibility – if your work offends, is it intentional? How will you react? Are you willing to accept all sorts of feedback and consequences? Check your inner critic and make sure that your statement meets your personal ethics. Can you morally stand behind you project? Think about the risks and assumptions involved.

Let’s make this a conversation. Your response to this post is invited and encouraged. I want to know what you think.

11 thoughts on “On Yarn Bombing and Ethics

  1. Thank you so so much for writing an articulate, well-informed, nuanced response to the most common questions about yarnbombing.

  2. Great post, Leanne: I too was quite concerned when I read the original story.

    When I was doing an artist residency out in Prince Edward County, Ontario, two years ago, I was approached about doing a yarnbomb run. They were quite surprised when I said that we’d be better off getting permission to do it, and I offered to see what the hoops were to jump through — fact of the matter was that once I found the right person to talk to, it was a piece of cake.

    Our original plan was to install, document, and remove in one afternoon, but were offered an entire week to let the pieces stay up, and that was extended to a second week within the first two days of installation, because of the 200+ phone calls (all complimentary!) to the parks department.

    In some things, it may be easier to ask for forgiveness after the fact than permission before, but my yarnbombing experience has been the opposite.


    1. Linda,

      Thanks for sharing your experience. I have had instances where I’ve been given permission to do projects and experiences where my yarn bombing has truly been graffiti. I think each artist has to figure out what works for them and the nature of the work that they do.

      One thing I’m curious about is why we expect knitters to ‘be good’ – in a way that we don’t expect of other artists who do performance or installation work. Food for thought.

  3. Yes, thank you for this thoughtful piece. Though I find many yarn bombs charming, I must admit that I mostly consider them a waste of good knitting materials and/or good knitting time. Knit the Bridge in Pittsburgh seems a nice exception, with the knitted panels being removed, laundered and given away as blankets.

    1. Thanks for leaving a comment, Laura. Yes, Knit the Bridge was a great example of charity knitting. One thing I wonder about is does the message outweigh the cost of materials?

      Often with knitting and crochet we are very materially-focused as traditionally these textiles have been seen as only functional. We often do not criticize performance or installation or landscape artists who work in other mediums for ‘waste’. Why is yarn different?

      1. Excellent point Leanne. In other words, because knitting has a strong utilitarian background (functionality vs design), we tend to differentiate it, demand or expect it to be repurposed. I often struggle with this question in my own practice.

  4. Hi Leanne,
    Your post inspired me to reflect on ethics surrounding a practice I’ve been enjoying for three years. Here’s the post on my blog : http://tricotpourlapaix.com/2014/08/22/ethique/ It’s in French, so here’s a translation I did, as best as I could :
    The last stunt of Olek is making waves and triggering important questions about the values surrounding the art and practice of graffiti-knitting. In attempting to draw attention to sharks’ extinction by covering a sculpture from the Cancun Underwater Museum, the artist may have inadvertedly damaged the aquatic wildlife according to a recent Huffington Post article. Acting without permission is typical of graffiti and street artists. It’s a way to leave its mark and reclaim public space. It’s bold and often baffling. Wool provides nevertheless a sweet and acceptable tone to these illegal actions. Textile, by nature, connotes protection, not destruction. Olek’s time bomb might have very well succeeded in shaking up consciousness and raising awareness about environmental issues. Instead her action appears to have been drowned by the questioning of her moral integrity and the legitimacy of her approach. A work of art or even an artistic gesture supporting a social cause has to be well informed and highly ethical in order to ensure its success and preserve its message. Olek who is no amateur should have seen this coming. As a representation, the bomb, and the real danger, is to try at all costs to push the limits, blow people’s mind, at the price of mistaking its own interests for the cause. The last post by Leanne Prain, author and expert of DYI and craft culture, entitled On Yarn Bombing and Ethics, which inspired me this brief reflexion, deals with some important questions surrounding the practice of graffiti-knitting. Food for thoughts.

    1. Hi TPLP, thank you for your very thoughtful reply post – you’ve given me some things to think about.

      The idea of yarn bombers having an innate sense of moral integrity is an interesting one, isn’t it? This expectation says so much about our sentimentality around wool and crafts.

      1. I suppose wool and crafts bring about qualities such as authenticity, or at least a longing, a desire to relate to our humanness, to ourselves and others, on a deeper, more concrete – genuine – level. It is sentimental as it seems to relate to our emotions first. By its tactile nature, it connotes familiarity, intimacy, immediacy, closeness, introspection even maybe. It goes without saying that I don’t question Olek’s morality per say, but the artistic gesture and if its intrinsic meaning. It misses its mark (to promote the preservation of marine life) by very little. It was conceptually sound but one important oversight and the piece is now more questionable than impactful. Yet it’s hard to separate the artist from the work. Whether it was self-promoting or self-driven, the short video does offer some insights. A close analysis of its representation, which revolves entirely around an artistic performance and the resulting crocheted piece. I do question myself often about my own intentions. I think it’s important to talk about it to become more aware and literate about how we use crafts to advocate for causes – and by extension how we use the medium of film to represent it. I’m starting to draft a post relating to this question : should charity knitting be a collective and anonymous endeavour in order to be devoid of the trappings of self-interest? Yet self-promotion is a form of self-preservation. It is part of the human experience and integral to an artist’s life, whether one choose an aka or not. It’s great that you are offering this think tank, a place to exchange about such ideas — the yarnbombing practice in particular. Thanks Leanne !

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