Illustration: Shaun Yeo; additional design by Tina Tiller
Illustration: Shaun Yeo; additional design by Tina Tiller

Covid-19November 20, 2021

Artist ‘upset and angry’ at anti-vaxxers’ use of his Crying Kiwi image

Illustration: Shaun Yeo; additional design by Tina Tiller
Illustration: Shaun Yeo; additional design by Tina Tiller

Shaun Yeo’s illustration depicting the grief of the Christchurch terror attacks has been co-opted to push anti-mandate rhetoric.

This post was first published on Emily Writes Weekly.

On March 15, 2019, illustrator Shaun Yeo sat down to channel his devastation about the unfolding terrorist attack at the Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch.

Like so many New Zealanders, he was reeling from the horror of the mass shooting and wanted to try to capture how he felt. In doing so, he captured the feeling of the nation with his cartoon ‘Crying Kiwi’, which would become one of the best-known artistic responses to that terrible day.

“I didn’t have any idea of the impact it would make,” he says, “but I remember finishing it and it was really raw. It captured my emotions and you don’t often get that with a drawing. I remember looking at it and thinking: ‘Yes – that represents how I’m feeling’.”

The image quickly went viral, shared thousands of times worldwide. “I had a feeling it was a powerful thing but I didn’t expect it to resonate so much,” he says.

Within a day of posting the image, people were contacting Yeo to ask to buy the image or to pay him for the use of it.

“I was being inundated, people were offering money and trying to make money from it, but it was never created for profit. I never wanted any money from it and I didn’t want other people making money off of it either, that would’ve been wrong.”

Yeo and his wife found themselves pleading with anyone using the image, whether for t-shirts, stickers or posters, that they donate profits to the fund for the victims of the mosque attacks.

“I was clear from the start – I thought it was very wrong to make money from it.”

To avoid the image being used for profit, Yeo licensed it under Creative Commons, making it free for anyone to use. “I wanted to give it to the community, give it to New Zealanders,” he says.

“I never imagined it would be used for anything but to remember and recognise the terror attacks.”

The version of Yeo’s artwork that has recently circulated online

This week, the cartoon has again been popping up on social media feeds – but for an awful reason. Anti-vaccination and anti-mandate protestors have repurposed the image to use to push their agenda.

Yeo says he is deeply saddened by the choice to co-opt the cartoon and compare vaccination to the horrific Christchurch terror attack. “I find it really distasteful and quite upsetting. I felt quite emotional seeing it because in my wildest dreams, never did I think people would use it for political gain.”

He’s not the only one. This week I was contacted by many who were disgusted by anti-vaxxers’ use of the Crying Kiwi image.

Says Yeo: “I’m the person who drew the cartoon, but a lot of New Zealanders have taken ownership of it because they understand what it means. I’m as upset and angry as other Kiwis are that they’ve done this. I just find it very distasteful – I thought people would respect it.”

There’s little that can be done to stop the image being used for political purposes, given its Creative Commons licence. All Yeo can do is appeal for empathy.

Asked what he would say to those using the image for their anti-vaccination mandate cause, Yeo says he’d hope they’d consider what it feels like for the families of those who lost loved ones in the terror attacks.

“I would tell them to stop using that image and think about the victims of the tragedy. You can’t separate the Crying Kiwi from that tragedy.”

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