Clairemont residents woke up to a cozy surprise last weekend. It came in the form of yarn leaves and stems that transformed ordinary stop signs into towering flowers.
Smiles accompanied by head scratches and questions surely arose.
It wasn't the first time this had happened. During the past year, several of these urban blooms have sporadically popped up in the still of the night, giving the otherwise bland suburban environment a playful touch of panache.
Spoiler alert: They're the work of a knitting aficionado named Bryan (he didn't want his last name published), who, under the moniker “Knitting Guy,” has expanded what started as a gag into a guerrilla beautification movement.
I met up with him last Thursday night at a local mall to tag along on one of his yarn-bombing adventures. He and his neighbor Alan greeted me, and we hopped in a Volvo station wagon and began the covert mission.
Bryan, a computer programmer, said he picked up the hobby six years ago when one of his daughters received as a gift a learn-to-knit kit that came with instructions in broken English. “I had to learn in order to teach her,” he said, “and I never looked back.”
He said he found the practice “meditative,” but because the craft is traditionally considered a female activity, he quickly realized he'd have to fight an uphill battle against gender and sexual-orientation bias.
“I'm straight myself,” he said. He asserted his masculinity by recounting how, in the Middle Ages, knitting was a male-dominated realm, much like blacksmithing and glassblowing.
Reaching the sleepy intersection of Gaylord Drive and Argonne Street, we made the night's first stop. Bryan pulled out a finished green, scarf-like stem, along with a small stepstool that's seen better days, and got to work.
He said the genesis of the idea was a piece by street artist Mark Jenkins, who added a couple of leaves to a drab stop sign in Washington, D.C.
“You basically vandalize outdoor things with yarn—be it crocheted or knitted,” Bryan said. “It seems to be tolerated by the authorities because it's pretty innocuous; it doesn't really alter the object that gets yarn-bombed.”
Guiding his buddy as he sewed up the stockinette-stitched sleeve along the stop-sign rod, he recounted the tale of his first stop-sign flower: “I put it up in the middle of the night—it must have been 11:30 or midnight. I wanted to make sure no one saw me doing it, and then chuckled all the way home and waited to see people's reactions.”
He figured that if it lasted three days, the $10 he spent on yarn would have been worth it. Fourteen months later, it's still there.
A few more quickly followed.
“I find it lightens people's mood,” he said, adding that, recently, when he went back to do some maintenance work on that first flower, someone had already rewired its leaves.
Inspired, he launched a campaign on Kickstarter to Miracle-Gro that first stop sign into a bouquet of more than a hundred.
His project successfully funded, Bryan rounded up a dozen or so knitting ninjas to form a regular circle at nearby Beverly's craft store, and, armed with a pattern, size-35 needles and Lion Brand thick and quick wool-ease skeins (that's balls to you and me), created the stop-sign koozies.
“I see public art as a form of positive vandalism. It's something that is out there in your everyday life, something that you don't have to pay money to see and that you can't avoid seeing,” he mused.
His hope is that the project will attract visitors to his community.
“I grew up in Clairemont, and I realize how sterile and boring it is, and it could really use something like this,” Bryan said. “The one that's on my street, I see it every day, and every day it makes me smile.”
As the night's first bloom was wrapping up, a few cars slowed down and a lady walking her pit bull gawked for a bit. Knitting Guy says he's unfazed.
“I have a job to do. Besides, what are they gonna do? This is Clairemont,” he said.
On the third flower of the night, I shared a story I'd previously written for CityBeat about a couple of seed-bomber ladies who attributed their not getting in trouble with the authorities to “white privilege,” and I asked Bryan if he thought his feeling might be different if he were a man of color.
He hadn't contemplated that, he said, joking that perhaps he takes his “whiteness for granted.”
The excursion reaching its end, Bryan further assessed his project. “I see it as the outgrowth of putting posters and flags on your wall as a teenager; now my whole community is my wall.
“My ultimate wish is to somehow elevate my craft into an art,” he said, heading back to the mall to drop me off. “I'll never have the title of ‘artist,' but this makes me feel pretty close.”
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. Enrique blogs at elzonkeyshow.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @enriquelimon.