Gangsta Wrap

It's lunchtime on a cool Tuesday afternoon in August, and Magda Sayeg is "tagging" a street sign in the middle of a busy Condesa intersection—but not with a can of spray paint. Instead, the Houston-based graffiti artist is wrapping the signpost with a five-foot-long rectangle of hot pink fabric that she knitted herself.

Sayeg is working fast. She stretches the fabric around the post, fastens it with plastic zip ties, and then pushes it up the pole as far as it will go. All the while cars are racing by; a cop on a silver motorcycle checks her out, but decides to move on. "It's unsanctioned art; that's what graffiti is," the petite 34-year-old in a blue cotton minidress says, explaining why police don't stop her. "You don't see it like that ‘cause it's pretty. But pretty is not necessarily any less outlaw."

But pretty is a big part of why Sayeg's collective, Knitta Please, has moved so quickly, from its first spontaneously knitted doorknob in Houston three years ago, to a streetlight in Paris, to Mexico City. Knitta tags aren't high art; they're a clever spin on tired, spray-painted graffiti, a cuter, innocuous alternative to the 3D lettering that owners of walls and building facades have been painting over for decades, which explains why Sayeg is getting away with defacing a street sign in broad daylight in Mexico City.
Sayeg's worldwide tagging spree began suddenly one day when she and a couple of girlfriends spied an abandoned pile of yarn and decided to cover a door handle. Then it dawned on them, Sayeg writes on her Web site, that they could become "a tag crew of knitters, bombing the inner city with vibrant, stitched works of art, wrapped around everything from beer bottles on easy nights to public monuments and utility poles on more ambitious outings."

The original crew was 11-strong, and they took the gangsta rap concept seriously (their name is a pun on the title of an album by the late rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard). Everyone had a moniker: Akrylic, PolyCotN and, for the lone male of the group, MascuKnitity. Their outings became a Tuesday night ritual of heavy beer drinking and girl-gang shenanigans. They donned black hoodies and waited till dusk fell to canvas Houston with their unfinished scarves and sweaters.

The Knittas eventually shrank to three members, but their concept went global. Imitation craft bombers surfaced in England and Australia. The Seattle Monorail commissioned them to wrap a large concrete column. Random House came knocking. These days, Sayeg can't seem to go anywhere without generating a media buzz. The mother of three and co-owner (with partner of fourteen years Dan Fergus) of a boutique, two bookstores, and restaurant in Texas, is wondering if her favorite hobby can become her full-time job.

"Here I am doing Knitta, and it's taken me everywhere," she says. "How can I argue that it's not the most fulfilling thing in terms of profession?"

It's her last day in Mexico, and she and her husband, a soft-spoken guy twelve years her senior who favors T-shirts and sneakers, are wandering around a market off Paseo de la Reforma picking out trinkets for the kids. Conversation turns to what Sayeg is going to do next with Knitta Please.

"How about a convention?" Dan suggests. "We could do it in Japan."

"Yeah," says Sayeg, without a hint of irony. "I like the idea of involving more of the fan base."

They only have thirty minutes to catch a cab to the airport, and Sayeg is feeling bittersweet about leaving. She came here with eighteen tags, but still has three left. Walking down Reforma toward the hotel, she pulls out a nest of fuzzy dark gray yarn from her bag. It's clearly expensive stuff, and Sayeg gives it a wistful look. "One day I'm going to make something practical," she sighs.

The last time she did that was two years ago for Christmas. She made a purple scarf for her seven-year-old niece, who hated it. "I spent two hours knitting!" she says, shaking the yarn. "It's like, ‘Screw it, can I have that back and put it on a pole?'"