Meet Eric Rieger, aka HOTTEA the Mpls. yarnbomber

HOTTEA says he was once a graffiti writer, but stopped after a cop used a Taser gun on him. However he missed doing street art, so after completing a degree at MCAD three years ago he began experimenting with using yarn in unusual places. He started by creating words on chain link fences, and then progressed to words and images on telephone poles.
Photo for MPR by Eli Eijadi

For the last three years someone's been splashing words and images on fences and light poles around Minneapolis. Not with paint, but with brightly colored yarn. The only clue as to the identity of the artist was a street name: HOTTEA.

Now, HOTTEA is coming in from the cold.

Eric Rieger used to write graffiti, but he paid a price. "The story goes I got tasered like four or five times," he said. "I went to jail and seeing my family going through all that pain, and just knowing that if this happened again they'd be going through the same amount of pain again, and I just couldn't do that, and so I stopped doing graffiti art."

Photo gallery: HOTTEA comes in from the cold

He focused on getting his graphic design degree at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. After graduating in 2007, he became a freelancer. But he missed the energy and excitement of doing street art.

His grandmother had died around that time as well. They were very close even though she only spoke Spanish, and he only English. She taught him how to knit — it was one way they communicated. As he grieved he considered combining their artforms.

"I thought with my love of typography, how can I involve typography and yarn with street art?" he said. "And then hence came about the fencework."

Yarn bombing
Yarn bombing on a Minneapolis bridge.
Photo for MPR by Eli Eijadi

The fencework as he calls it began with him weaving the word HOTTEA into chain link fences. It became his street name. HOTTEA said he chose the word because it had personal meaning for him and his life partner. In fact, HOTTEA said family runs through all his work.

He began creating images as well as words, and weaving on nail-studded light poles too. One day he made a picture of his grandmother using yarn to connect carefully placed nails, a bit like joining the dots. He said as the sun began to set he realized it wasn't going to work, but all was not lost.

"Just from the right angle, all the shadows from the nails, sort of cast the image of my grandmother," he recalled. "It was really really interesting to see."

The yarn art attracted attention. Comments began popping up online about the pieces, including on MPR's State of the Arts blog. Debates raged about what they meant.

Meanwhile HOTTEA was thinking bigger: to intricate yarn hangings, he wove canopies on the pedestrian walkways over Twin Cities freeways.

Working at HAUS Salon
HOTTEA works the yarn at HAUS Salon in Minneapolis. This is the third art exhibition the salon has hosted since it opened in January.
Photo for MPR by Eli Eijadi

It takes a lot of time to do these pieces and he still runs into cops. He said he's so passionate about what he does he's ready to go to jail for it. But it hasn't happened yet.

"It's still so new, using yarn as street art, a lot of times they don't know what to do," he said. "They are like 'Do we give him a ticket? And if we give him a ticket, what do we give him, a ticket for?'"

More of a problem is people who tear down his pieces, either by accident, or deliberately. HOTTEA said he watches and repairs his work, but they seldom last more than a few days.

HOTTEA said his work is about perspective, seeing things in new ways, both literally and metaphorically.

Now there's a little twist to this story. He said he didn't know it, but as HOTTEA was riding his bike around Minneapolis looking for spots to work, he was actually part of a larger movement: yarn bombing.

Across the U.S. and into Europe, yarnbombers were doing things like knitting brightly patterned sleeves around trees and bike racks, or covers for seats on commuter trains. As awareness of HOTTEA's work has grown he's accepted invitations to work in other cities.

MPLSArt curator Emma Berg
MPLSArt curator Emma Berg organized the HOTTEA installation at HAUS Salon in Minneapolis.
Photo for MPR by Eli Eijadi

"I've been able to go to London, Berlin, now Poland and I'll be doing a lot more traveling too, so it's been pretty amazing" he said.

And now he's got a show called "Flying Solo" at the HAUS Salon in Minneapolis, sponsored by MPLSArt. Curator Emma Berg said the gallery show gives HOTTEA a gift of time.

"To really let him pour his heart into it, into the pieces and let them have life more than the week on the street," she said.

The HAUS Salon is a working hairstylist. HOTTEA installed a piece called "Sometime I Wish Upon A Star" above the hair washing station. Hundreds of strands of brightly colored yarn hangs from the ceiling above.

Customer Sean Berry gave it a huge thumbs up.

HOTTEA's grandmother
HOTTEA's portrait of his grandmother watches across the salon. The artist says his art is based in his family, and his grandmother was a hugely important figure in his life.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

"It looks like it must have been a hideous amount of work to put up, but I just love it," he said. "It looks like its going to be a lot of work to clean, but aside from that, wonderful!"

"Flying Solo" opens officially with a reception on Saturday night, but it's not the only place you can catch HOTTEA's work. He's still out making street pieces.

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