Knit wits

The knitters of Reno Yarn Bombing want to beautify downtown and keep the statues warm

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Photo By amy Beck

A couple of months ago, I was walking down a street in downtown Reno, minding my own business. There was a young guy, early 20s, lean and hungry-looking, sitting on a stoop, smoking a cigarette. We nodded a silent hello. Then, another young guy, blond and hefty, seemed to appear out of nowhere and said to me, “Hey man, nice hat.”

“What was that?” I asked. I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or not. Were these guys looking to pick a fight in the middle of the day? I was wearing a warm and cozy black-and-white knit beanie that my mother-in-law had made for me.

“That’s a nice hat,” said the hefty guy. “I’m being totally serious. That’s a really nice hat.”

“Thanks,” I said. I’d stopped walking.

“Did you make it?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “It was a Christmas present from my mother-in-law.”

“She’s really good.”

“Thanks. I’ll tell her you said that.”

“It’s a great pattern.”

“So … you guys are into knitting?”

They shared a meaningful glance. It was like I’d asked them, “Do you guys get high?” After a pregnant pause, the lean guy on the stoop took a slow drag off his cigarette, squinted his eye in a conspiratorial, secret-society way, and spoke for the first time: “Oh, we’ve been known to do a little knitting from time to time.”

“Well, that’s cool,” I said, unsure how else to respond. “You guys have a nice day.”

“You too,” said the hefty guy with a smile.

“We’ll see you around,” said the lean guy, still giving me the conspiratorial smirk.

What the fuck was that about? I wondered as I walked away. I spent the rest of the day thinking about knitting.

A tangled yarn

Yellow attaches a knitted wrap around a tree by the Truckee River.

Photo By amy Beck

A week or two later, I was on Facebook and somehow stumbled onto a page called “Yarnbombing Reno.” The page featured photos of various statues around Reno, like the pioneers in front of Pioneer Center or John Mackey at the University of Nevada, Reno quad (photo, this page), all wearing bright, knitted caps. There were also trees and street signs adorned with knitted cozies and other “yarn bombs”—bombs in the slang sense of street art.

I sent the anonymous yarn bombers an email, and after a couple of weeks of conspiratorial electronic communication, RN&R photographer Amy Beck and I arranged to meet with the two bombers, code named “Yellow” and “Red.” The bombers asked that I preserve their anonymity, even though none of us are sure they’re doing anything illegal. The yarn bombs don’t do any damage to property. Littering, maybe?—and, in some cases, trespassing.

We met at midnight on a Sunday evening in the parking lot of the RN&R office in downtown Reno. When I arrived, I wasn’t too surprised to discover that the yarn bombers were the same two guys who had complimented my hat a few weeks prior. The lean and hungry guy identified himself as Red, the blond and hefty guy as Yellow. That night, the duo wore knit hats to match their aliases. A friend of theirs, with the less colorful code name Jack, was also along to help, so, including me and Beck, there were five of us.

Yellow and Red remembered our initial interaction—they were actually disappointed I was wearing a different hat. They said that, at the time, they didn’t know who I was, so they weren’t complimenting the hat to plant a seed for me to write a story about them; They were genuinely impressed by the knitting.

We started walking. It was a cold and windy night, and Red and I took occasional sips from a hip flask of whiskey to fight off the chill. We all talked as we walked.

Yellow, 24, and Red, 23, are both among Reno’s legions of unemployed. They took up knitting and yarn bombing partly out of frustration with the constant struggle of trying to find work. They needed something to do—something fulfilling and productive, something they could be proud of, something they could brag about and show to their mothers. Something that strangers would notice, talk about, and maybe even photograph.

“Otherwise we’d just be sitting on our asses in bars,” said Yellow.

Yarn bombing is a popular activity in bigger cities with young, hipster populations, like Portland and Seattle. Red and Yellow had heard about yarn bombers in those cities but didn’t know of anyone doing it locally.

“It’s just hipster graffiti,” said Yellow, “but it’s fun to us.” He used to drive a cab, a job he compares to “paddleboat driver on the river Styx,” and he has the gregarious, easy way with people of a good cabbie.

When they decided to start yarn bombing, neither Red nor Yellow knew how to knit. They bought some starter kits and cheap how-to DVDs. As they started putting in time—they say they sometimes knit for 12 hours a day—they quickly found their skills improving. They now talk shop relentlessly.

“We’re constantly talking about knitting and admiring knitted things,” said Yellow. “We’ve become grandmothers.”

Red places a knitted wrap around a stop sign pole near the UNR campus.

Photo By amy Beck

Our first stop was the statue of three pioneers in front of Pioneer Center. It’s a regular target for Red and Yellow.

“Last time, we had a Pioneer employee thank us on Facebook,” said Yellow, with satisfaction. Both yarn bombers mention that a primary motivation for yarn bombing is simple recognition.

“It’s just about getting some recognition,” said Yellow. “And downtown is just so sterile. And the statues are made of metal. You know they have to be cold.”

“And they look way cooler with hats,” said Red.

“The Tin Man would’ve appreciated it,” said Yellow.

The Reno yarn bombers make things other than hats—like “tree huggers,” big, colorful knitted cozies meant to be wrapped around trees, street lights and signs—but hats are the main focus.

“They make the best gifts,” said Red. “It’s like, ‘Here, I made this.’”

And they’re cheap enough to give away. In addition to donating them to the region’s coldest statues, the yarn bombers often give them away to homeless people and other random folks on the street.

Though yarn bombing has its roots in counterculture street art, it’s fairly mild.

“It’s the least amount of street credit you can get for doing something illegal,” said Yellow.

One of the many bombs Red and Yellow set up the night I tagged along was a bright red wrap around the pole of a stop sign at the corner of Ninth and Center Streets, near the entrance to UNR. It’s an intersection I pass through every day on my way to work, and every day that wrap is still there, it brings a smile to my face. Each of those knitted caps and tree huggers are like little flags representing two unemployed local guys—creative, friendly, hard-working people who just want to make Reno beautiful.