Mad knitters take to Tokyo’s streets

Why knit sweaters, scarves and baby socks, when you can create sea creatures, bench covers and human hearts?

by Verena Dauerer

This November, people strolling through a park in Ebisu, Tokyo, were baffled: Several benches there had been covered with colorful knitwear, many wildly curling around the wooden poles of backrests and armrests. Next to the benches, more wondrous knitted entities were hanging from the branches of a tree.

It was an attack by the newly founded Surprise Attack Knitting Group, or Ami Kishu Dan in Japanese.

There are, of course, various other knitting groups in Japan, but this kind of “guerrilla knitting” only started in August this year. Spread all over Japan, the Surprise Attack Knitting Group now has around 15 knitting activists, all of whom found each other over the Internet. Behind the movement is Que D’accord, a collaboration originally of three but now five knitters, who have been working together since 2006.

First seen in America in 2005, guerrilla knitting took off when a couple of knit-loving artists formed Knitta (knittaporfavor.wordpress.com ), a group of like-minded people who decorated lamp posts, street signs and other public monuments with knitted wraps or crocheted ornaments. But this “Knit graffiti” was not vandalism. It was more of a peaceful sister to spray-paint graffiti, a form of ephemeral art meant as public installation and making temporary statements. Even the process of knitting defies antagonism — it’s a meditative, time-consuming hobby. The movement spread quickly to like-minded activists around the world, recently reaching the Japanese Que D’accord collective.

The French-sounding nom de guerre, “Que D’accord,” is a wordplay on its pronunciation, “ke da ko,” which in Japanese means “woolen octopus.” The three founding members — who want to only reveal their aliases — are 203gow (blog.livedoor.jp/m203gow/ ) from Gifu Prefecture, Takoyama (krakendesign.blogspot.com) from Sado island in Niigata Prefecture and Miquraffreshia ( miquraffreshia. blogspot.com) from Tochigi Prefecture.

They met over the Internet and founded the group after all three exhibited at the 2006 MAKE Magazine Meeting in Tokyo. Named after the American do-it-yourself magazine, the meeting is a popular yearly gathering of craftspeople and inventors who like to make unusual innovations — anything from the creative use of Arduino open-source electronic platforms to knitting strange objects such as alien masks, lifelike human hearts . . . and giant octopuses. “Before we even met, we all liked knitting octopuses,” recalls Takoyama, explaining how Que D’accord came about, “It was as if we’d arranged it beforehand.”

Maybe they were on to something. The art blog “We make money not art” pointed out a trend of activist knitters around the world choosing to create sea creatures — “because squids are the new skulls,” it said. Last year, the group displayed their octopuses in a street car running through the Arakawa neighborhood of Tokyo. A one-day exhibition event, the sea creatures dangled from the hand railings and a band played to the passengers.

Not surprisingly for this digital age, as a typical grassroots coalition, Que D’accord communicate and organize their events mainly over Twitter. This serves especially well when the group started to rally their members for something new: the Surprise Attack Knitting Group. 203gow says, “We communicate through Twitter and decide on members — anyone can join. There are various people who participate; those who provide knitted goods and others who provide knitting materials.”

Surprise Attack Knitting Group has even tried to expand overseas: One of the members lives in British Columbia in Canada. “Although she hasn’t taken part in any events, she sends us her knitted objects,” says Takoyama.

The group staged their first attack in front of an Isetan department store window in Shinjuku this August. Takoyama recalls, “Four members, 203gow, Miquraffreshia, Hanakomet and Emmaruri gathered, guerrilla-style, in front of a window in which 203gow already had a window-display of her knitting, and started to work.”

The “work” involved dressing up the ordinary railings in front of the window in elaborate knitwear. Passersby who paused to take a closer look at the knitted animals in the shop window would also stop to look at the unusual ornamentation in front of the display.

Since then, Que D’accord has been busy. 203gow held a knitting workshop at a Pac-Man themed exhibition in the 3331 Arts Chiyoda art center in Soto-Kanda in October. Shortly after, the group was approached by Yebisu Garden Place, a shopping mall and museum complex in the Ebisu area of Tokyo. Having seen the guerrilla attack at Isetan, Yebisu Garden Place wanted the Surprise Attack Knitting Group to “attack” their premises, too. And willing to oblige, the group struck again in November with a public art installation of decorated benches in the complex’s park area.

“The attack went very well. The locals enjoyed trying out the knitted benches to see what they felt like, and many took photographs,” Miquraffreshia says, “Also people interested in knitting approached us and talked to us.”

The shoppers in Ebisu who stopped to look at the benches, which were covered in knitted stripes and other colorful wools, often sat on them for a long time. “Knitted things warm up cold and damaged hearts. It has an appeal to the body, the heart and the mind,” 203gow says. “Guerrilla knitted objects can make people a bit more aware of things.”

G uerrilla knitting, admittedly, isn’t quite the kind of activism that galvanizes pedestrians for political action — but it is a movement, just one of softer intentions. It wants to bring more color in people’s lives. That might seem a little woolly, but it’s not a bad thing, and is only the beginning. “We have only just started, I don’t know what we will do next,” says Takoyama.

The next Surprise Attack Knitting Group event has not yet been scheduled. But for those interested in the group’s activities or knitting in general you can visit their blogs mentioned in this article, or follow their tweets at @niimarusangow, @Takoyama and @miquraffreshia (Japanese only).