In the wake of the horrific acts of terrorism that ripped through France on Friday, November 13, killing at least 129 people and injuring hundreds, an image with a message of peace has emerged amid the darkness and gone viral. It’s simple, haunting, and has served as a tool for people across the globe to express solidarity. It has been shared across social media, displayed at vigils, and even scrawled on concrete in public spaces.
Jean Jullien, a 32-year-old French graphic designer and illustrator who created the image, says in a Skype interview that he was on the first day of vacation on Friday (at a location he declined to share), when he turned on the radio to a French station and learned of the tragic events. “I was deeply shocked, saddened, and confused,” he says. “Because I’m an illustrator, drawing is my first natural reaction to communicate things in general.”
Jullien took to ink and brush on paper and the resulting image is what he drew without any initial sketching. “I wanted to create a symbol of peace,” Jullien says of the hand-drawn illustration that combines the Eiffel tower and the universal symbol of peace. “It was a raw reaction. It was the only thing I could think of doing and my way of expressing to all of my loved ones in Paris … I was thinking about them,” he says.
After posting the image to his social media accounts on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook Friday evening under the caption “Peace for Paris,” Jullien says it “instantaneously got out of hand and out of my reach.” By Saturday morning, the artist realized just how widespread and symbolic the illustration had become. Rumors emerged early on that the work was by Banksy, which social media pundits quickly dismissed. Approximately four hours after it had gone live on Twitter, it had accumulated 16,000 retweets from Jullien’s personal Twitter account; after 24 hours that number had climbed up to 53,000 retweets. His followers on Twitter also sky-rocketed, going from around 8,000 prior to November 13, to more than 21,000. A few hours after Jullien posted the image to his Instagram account, Instagram shared the image to its 113 million followers with credit to the artist. After 24 hours, the post by Instagram had accumulated more than 1.3 million likes. Countless media outlets and celebrities around the world also have shared the image.
Why did the image spread so rapidly? “We need symbols to express what [we] cannot say,” says Steven Heller, an educator as well as author, co-author, and editor of more than 100 books on design and popular culture. “Images define and describe tragedies and other monumental happenings. It is as common as graffiti for an image to emerge in response to tragedy.”
For Jullien, who typically intertwines humor into his work, the attention he is getting from the poignant illustration was never the intention nor motivation. “I’m not proud or happy or glad or anything. I’m still completely shocked, devastated, saddened. The first people that I can possibly think of are the victims and their families,” he says. “If [the illustration] can be useful in such a tragic moment, then my job is done.” The illustrator notes that people have been quick to credit him across social media, which is kind but not necessary. “It’s an image for everyone. I don’t really care about ownership of the image,” he says. “This is a moment of unity.”