The image started showing up on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram within hours of the attacks in Paris: a simple, slightly off-kilter rendering of the Eiffel Tower framed by a circle so as to look like a peace sign. Most people who shared the image, which has since become the dominant visual symbol of grief over the attacks, probably didn’t know where it originated, or who was responsible for coming up with it. As it spread across the social Web, some speculated it had come from the secretive street artist Banksy.
In fact, the creator of the drawing was a French illustrator named Jean Jullien, who posted it to his Twitter page around midnight Paris-time with the caption “Peace for Paris,” and watched it swiftly take flight. Jullien, whose work tends to be marked by a light touch and a breezy, sometimes high concept sense of humor, has made a habit of reacting to the news in graphic form before, drawing pictures to mark the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the legalization of gay marriage in Ireland, and the massacre at Charlie Hebdo in Paris last January.
I spoke to Jullien via Skype on Saturday about his drawing, and what it feels like to see people all over the world sharing it with each other in the midst of these tragic events. Our conversation has been lightly edited.
Did you grow up in Paris?
No, I didn’t, actually—I’m French but I never actually lived in Paris. I’ve got loads of friends, family, and people I work with in Paris.
When did you hear that something was happening in Paris last night?
I’m in a different time zone at the moment, so I can’t quite remember—I think it was 8 p.m. where I am, so maybe about midnight in France. I just arrived where I’m staying and I turned on the French radio and I heard about what was happening. So I just sort of started checking on my friends and family through social media, and everybody was saying “I’m OK.” And just because this is what I do, I draw, I reacted graphically, just drawing something spontaneously with pen and paper and then sharing it as a raw reaction. With so much violence and tragedy—we just want a bit of peace.
You drew it with pen on paper? It looks almost like paint.
It’s a brush pen—it’s ink.
Did you sketch any other things before you arrived at this concept?
No, this was the first thing—when I put my brush on paper, this was the first thing that came.
I know you drew a Charlie Hebdo illustration in January—do you often respond to news events in your work?
Yes, I do—I do graphics commercially for a living, but when I get affected by things, when something happens in the world, I usually communicate online with my drawings. I was very shaken after the Charlie Hebdo event, so I’ve taken a step back, but not really willingly. And I guess this sort of brought it back on.
Had you noticed the similarity between the peace sign and the Eiffel Tower before?
No, it was just me trying to combine two thoughts—Paris and peace. And somehow graphically it seemed to work.
Was there a mood you wanted to get across with the drawing?
I just wanted something symbolic, something that everybody could understand easily, and everybody could share regardless of where they’re from and whether they’re a keen observer of illustration usually. I just wanted something universal.
So you drew it with the hope that people would share it?
No—but, you know, a few people from different places follow my work, and I enjoy communicating to them, usually for happier reasons. What I do in general is try to communicate with people—and I’m aware that the more you want to communicate to a larger audience, the more universal and simple you have to be.
How do you think it spread?
It’s an image for everyone. It’s not my image—it’s not a piece of work that I’m proud of or anything—I didn’t create it to get credit or benefit from it. I just wanted to express myself, and from experience I know that through social media people like expressing themselves, or need to express themselves. It is somehow quite organic, the way these things go—you can’t really plan on it. I would just say that if people have used it so much, and if they felt like it was useful for them to share, then the image worked and I’m happy, so to speak, even though happiness is not really a thought that springs to my mind in such horrible times.
How does it feel to see it appearing everywhere?
It is overwhelming. It has apparently been shared a lot.
Is it the biggest thing you’ve done, in terms of its online reach?
Unfortunately, I think so, yes.