Art: Yarn revolution

TRISTAN POLLOCK and PHOTOS BY JULES AMEEL | Updated 8/17/2012

HOTTEA leads a local trend toward "nondestructive" street art.

It's broad daylight in downtown Minneapolis. Hungry workers flood the streets for the weekday lunch rush. The former Shinders bookstore at 8th and Hennepin sits quietly, empty except for a few loose wires spindling downward from the ceiling.

One silent pedestrian stops amid the bustle and takes note of the Shinders -- or, more specifically, the large glass windows that enclose the abandoned space. Within seconds, the mystery man pulls tiny suction cups from his pockets and adroitly places them in a pattern across one of the windows. Next, he produces a roll of pink yarn from a small backpack and begins creating an outline with the strands. Lines of yarn begin to form thick strands, which designate letters. The suction cups determine the corners.

Minutes later, the unidentified figure leaves, without even a glance from the business crowd, leaving behind an oversized horizontal pink word basking in the midday sun: "HOTTEA." It's the signature tag of Minneapolis-based street artist Eric Rieger, who goes by the same moniker.

If Rieger had used the traditional street-art medium of choice -- spray paint -- he may have caused a stir. But instead, his nondestructive method of yarn bombing -- the use of knitting to colorfully modify urban surroundings -- often provokes citizens to stop and show their support. "I enjoy the performance of my work," says Rieger, 28. "People are always very friendly and occasionally ask questions and stay to watch."

In the past few years, the citizen push away from soulless, colorless and impersonal cities has been increasing. "Too often we take the drab monotony of our cityscape for granted," says Kristoffer Knutson, the mplsart.com partner and owner of the now-closed design store ROBOTlove. "I, for one, appreciate the efforts of artists to inject a swath of optimism and color in our daily lives," he says of the yarn-bombing trend.

Many Minneapolitans agree. From downtown to Uptown and beyond, nondestructive public art is becoming quotidian. An elusive MCAD-based group called the Yarn Ninjas has sneakily yarn-bombed everything from tree sweaters to bike handlebars to foosball-table soccer players. In London, guerrilla knitting groups are popping up on street corners, with nicknamed cohorts like Deadly Knitshade. Last month a Philadelphia public train even had its seats indiscriminately overhauled with brightly colored fabric. And in Minneapolis, HOTTEA and others have transformed hundreds of brown, dirtied utility poles from staple-and-nail repositories into bright block-letter yarn tags. And that's just the beginning.

"Artists are upping their creative voice," says HOTTEA. "In the future, I think we'll see more street art that nondestructively interacts with the urban landscape we inhabit every day, allowing for a more diverse conversation to take place."

Behind the scenes, HOTTEA is more than just a name. It's a combination of two parts of a puzzle: a lifetime of art and a deeper, more personal symbolism. "The HOTTEA project embodies the similarities and differences in all of us," Rieger explains. "I've always had hot tea at memorable moments in my life. Combining the two words created a new meaning, just like the dynamics between two people. We are always growing as individuals, but together our possibilities are endless."

HOTTEA IN ACTION

  • Fashion Dance for Life: HOTTEA, Biafra Art and Chuck U will brighten up this black-tie AIDS benefit with live art performances. (8-11 p.m. Fri. $20-$100. Windows on Minnesota, 80 S. 8th St., Mpls., www.hfhope.org.)
  • Material Matters: HOTTEA will have free rein over three large windows at this MCAD group exhibition. (Opens June 4. www.mcad.edu.)