Carly Mallenbaum, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON -- Look closely , and you'll notice something special about the greenery at the Smith Center for Healing and the Arts community center on U Street: It's made entirely of yarn.
"We wanted to play on the contrast and decorate the outside with something that you don't traditionally see in this urban jungle," says Stacy Cantrell, 41, the curator of the Smith Center's knit graffiti.
The nonprofit's display is the latest iteration of the craft trend that's been coloring city streets for about a decade; Yarn bombing, the act of crocheting and knitting unexpected pieces for public display. Leanne Prain, author of Yarn Bombing who may have coined the term, says "bombing" is a word often used in street art to describe "something explosive you do really fast," like "spraypaint subway cars" and now, cover public property in knitting. Hurry and take an iPhone picture, because the pops of woven color go up quickly and have limited life-spans.
"That's kind of the beauty of yarn bombing-it's temporary," says Beth Baldwin, 40, an arts coordinator who adorned a sign-less brown-brick bar in 2011 with knitted pink and red hearts. "Maybe you're noticing things in your neighborhood that you never noticed before, and then it's gone. It leaves a little hole in your artistic heart."
The artwork filling people's hearts, Twitter feeds, Pinterest boards and Instagram accounts, ranges from tube socks on parking meters, to accessorized statues and wrapped city buses.
Magda Sayeg, 39, is widely considered the first yarn bomber. She says she "wanted to add something that was a little more human and soft" to her Houston, Texas clothing store "on a boring, dreary day" in 2005. So, she knit a cover for her doorknob.
"People were walking in to look at it and asking me about it," she says. Later, Sayeg and a group of guerrilla knitters who cheekily called themselves Knitta, please, "wanted to gauge people's reactions" by knitting covers for car antennas and stop signs. Other international knitters have followed suit, leaving few cities safe from surprise attacks of yarn.
Sayeg covered a Mexico City bus in psychedelic colors, yarn bombed part of a Bali statue, wove a message into 250 rods on a Brooklyn bridge and decorated a Sydney stairwell in stripes of yarn. "Even if you're a grumpy person and hate my work, you end up sort of smiling" after seeing it, she says.
Yarn artwork like Sayeg's is more than just pretty colors. Knit installations "can be absolutely subverting authority," says Nicholas Bell, curator of American Craft at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. He says, for example, popular crochet artist Olek showed "underlying criticism of the economic order" when she yarn-bombed the Wall Street bull statue in pink yarn on Christmas three years ago.
In July 2012, Bell featured an Olek work in his 40 Under 40: Craft Futures exhibit at the American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery. "People did a lot of staring in disbelief" at Olek's installation, a yarn-bombed room which "rips the idea of knitting as your grandma's hobby," says Bell.
Lucia deCordre, urban design director at Virginia's Rosslyn Business Improvement District, turned to yarn-bombing when she needed a community-friendly way to highlight the path from the local metro stop to the Artisphere museum in Virginia.
"Yarn bombing could get that job done," while also bringing the community together, said deCordre. This summer, more than 140 volunteers hand-stitched tree covers and crocheted animals for the project, which earned deCordre a Downtown Merit Award.
Back on U Street, the knit cacti are about much more than grabbing attention and directing pedestrians; they're about healing.
Creating the public art brings people together "from all walks of life, ages and skill levels" for therapeutic knit sessions, says Cantrell, who curated both the Rosslyn and U Street yarn displays. The Smith Center, which is yarn-bombing in honor of its Against the Bias craft exhibit, is a non-profit community center for those affected by cancer.
Those that participated will "enter into this community of crocheters and knitters, and make lifelong friendships," says Cantrell.
Meanwhile, passersby can't help but turn their heads and smirk at the wild yarn flowers. Sheetal Patel, 33, stops to take a photo.
"I've never seen a yarn bomb before," she says after the term is explained to her. "It makes me so happy, because it's a drab street. Now, I can peek out my window" to see some "character."