Wild and woolly
Don't be surprised if the 'Happy Man' statue at the entrance to Langham Place in Mong Kok is wearing a pair of colourful knitted trousers next time you visit. Knit graffiti artist Magda Sayeg is in town with her bag of woolly tricks.
Knit graffiti - also called 'yarn bombing' as it involves knitting and crocheting - took off in 2005 after the Texas native knitted a piece for the door handle of her Houston boutique, Raye.
'I saw a need for knit or crochet - soft material - out on the hard surfaces of the urban landscape,' says Sayeg, while sewing pieces together for her 'I Knit MK' exhibition in Mong Kok.
It attracted so much positive attention from the neighbourhood that she started knitting more for her surroundings. A crafty and warmer cousin of graffiti emerged, and Sayeg was soon noticed by the local media.
She started 'Knitta, Please' that same year, dedicated to spreading her 'guerilla' knitting. Now her work can be found wrapping unexpected objects from street signs, light poles, parking meters and fire hydrants to bricks on the Great Wall near Beijing and a statue's leg in Paris.
'To me it is interesting to have something that's so closely associated with the feminine side of women and putting it out into the world of graffiti, which is so closely associated with men,' says Sayeg.
'It's like I was taking knitting and flipping it on its head, and I was taking graffiti and flipping it on its head. I don't feel like I'm a knitter. I feel like it has more of an edge. There are gangsters, and there are gangstas. There are knitters, and there are knittas.'
Sayeg says the handmade quality and nostalgia for knitting are what attract her to the craft, although she never received any knitted pieces from her mother or her grandmother.
'My grandmother was very old when I was born, and my mother is not crafty - apparently her mother was. Maybe it's skipped a generation. So when I saw all these people having these relics and gifts from their grandmothers, I thought it was cool that somebody took all that time to make something for them.
'It needed to be celebrated. They were able to do these magical things with their hands that they never got appreciation for. I love the idea that I'm shedding a new light on this craft and making art with it.'
Over the years, Sayeg's works have continued to inspire and add a fresh perspective to their mundane surroundings. They also lead to commissions from galleries, museums and commercial firms from around the world. Some compare her work to Christo Javacheff and his wife-collaborator Jeanne-Claude's vast fabric artworks.
The bus in Mexico City that she yarn-bombed in 2008 launched her career and exposed her talent and taste in colours to the world. 'It's insane, it makes your eyes water because there are so many colours and patterns,' she says. 'I love to clash colours. And I like to use a colour that is unpopular and then challenge myself to make it beautiful. Beige and peach are such boring colours, but if you add green or pink to them, all of a sudden they have a different identity.'
She has since done large-scale projects, which include knitting around the gun and dagger of the sculpture of a military leader in Bali in 2010, and 99 tree trunks at the Blanton Museum of Art's Faulkner Plaza in Austin, Texas, last year. People from around the world are following in her footsteps. In 2009, for example, Lauren O'Farrell launched the Knit the City initiative in London, and last year Canadian Joann Matvichuk launched International Yarn Bombing Day.
'I'm happy that people are seeing their environment differently; we're so desensitised by visual pollution,' Sayeg says. 'It's interesting when people have an issue with me putting my work on the street. Why complain about me but not about the 'Lose weight now!' advertisements?
'It upsets some people because they don't understand it. They think it's pointless to knit just for art's sake. They want you to make blankets for the homeless or something useful. If we confine knitting and crocheting to functional purposes, then why don't we say the same thing about clay, for example? We would lose a lot of amazing artists out there.'
There's one more dilemma that Sayeg faces: 'I've tried, honestly, but no one wants to arrest me. It doesn't look threatening and it's not invasive. You'd have to be a very bored cop to want to arrest me.
'That's why a lot of the street artists in the graffiti world don't have respect for me, because it doesn't have that edge; it doesn't upset the officials. They will arrest the guy with the spray can. I'm the girl with the knitting.'
Even so, Sayeg is enjoying it more and more as she discovers new elements to incorporate into her work. The staircase in Sydney that she did last year plays with perception and multiplicity, and her solo show in Rome, also last year, featured knit-wrapped fluorescent tubes that gave out a different feeling when they were turned on.
Her next goal is to start her own fashion line.
'I've stretched the limitations of this craft, which I'm known for. I never expected in my wildest dreams to do some of the things that I've done,' she says. 'I've even seen my creatures come to life through stop-motion animation. Who knew that'd happen? I'm only worried that life is too short for me to be able to do everything I want to do.'
'I Knit MK', featuring works by Sayeg, local knitters and Polytechnic students, runs until September 2 at Langham Place, 555 Shanghai Street, Mong Kok