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Can street art and graffiti help the refugee crisis?

Madison McCormick

About a year ago I started tagging and painting the streets of New York, Istanbul, Athens and beyond to bring awareness to the refugee crisis. Here’s a sneak peek into my experience and what I found other street artists doing in response to the crisis.

By now you have probably heard a lot about the ongoing refugee crisis. Your various newsfeeds have been inundated with jarring updates on the subject. You might have overheard or engaged with your peers in debates regarding potential solutions. You may have even had the urge to do something yourself to help...but wondered how?

Last May, I returned from living in Italy - a country heavily affected by the crisis. This was before my daily news intake had been flooded with photos and news of refugees arriving in Lampedusa. While in Italy, I learned refugees weren’t just fleeing Syria, but also other war torn countries like Eritrea. I took a personal interest to educate myself on Italy’s position regarding immigration and refugee policy trying to understanding the complex global landscape of the refugee crises.

After returning to New York, I became preoccupied with localized concerns - apartment search, school demands, etc, as often happens. Then, last Fall when the world was in uproar after the image of Alan surfaced, I tried to understand how, on average, two children drown every day trying to reach safety in Europe. Or how the average time a refugee spends in a camp is 17 years! I was angry. 

But the reason I was angry might not be what you're thinking.

I was angry because the Syrian Civil War, a main factor contributing to the European Refugee Crisis, has continued for nearly six years without any signs of abating. It wasn’t until the tragic image of Alan, a 3-year-old drown and washed up on the beach, circulated that the Western media began to cover the crisis sparking discussion. 

Street art and grafitti- spread awareness of the refugee crisis_Guardian_AP_Body 1.jpgTurkish police officer Mehmet Çıplak carries the body of Alan Kurdi
Image: The Guardian - AP

I was angry because there was this gaping void of awareness about the crisis, both in my local community and abroad.

So I decided to get creative and do something about it - and I wasn’t the only one.


You’ve heard of Banksy right? Anonymous political street artist who had thousands of New Yorkers running around the city to find his work. People bid millions of dollars on Banksy's work that he deems worthless.

Street art and graffiti to spread awareness of refugee crisis_Guardian_Christian Sinibaldi_Body 2.jpgThe mural depicts a young girl from Les Misérables with tears in her eyes as gas billows towards her. Appearing on the French embassy in London, this artwork by Banksy is criticising the use of teargas in the “Jungle” refugee camp in Calais
Image: The Guardian - Christian Sinibaldi

What you may not know is that Banksy and other street artists have been acting as activists in the refugee crisis!

Street art and graffiti spread awareness of refugee crisis_Banksy_Banksy_Body Image 3.jpgStreet artist Banksy painted a depiction of Apple founder Steve Jobs on a wall in a migrant and refugee camp in France known as the Calais ‘Jungle’. The artist, who has never revealed his identity, released a rare public statement challenging the percepti
Image: Banksy - Banksy
Street art and graffiti spread awareness of the refugee crisis_Banksy_Banksy_Body Image 4.jpgCalais refugee camp with Steve Jobs mural
Image: Banksy - Banksy

Though the artist remains anonymous, Banksy proves to be a true activist. He has developed pop up murals in refugee camps commenting on global citizenship and donating the leftover infrastructure from his installation known as ‘Dismaland to help build energy housing for the 7,000 migrants in Calais, one of the largest refugee camps residing in Northern France.

Street art and graffiti spreads awareness of refugee crisis_Guardian_SWNS.com_Body Image 5.jpgVisitors approach the fairy castle at Dismaland
Image: The Guardian -

Tag & Seek

Banksy and other artists find the ‘sweet spot’ between aesthetically pleasing art for mass audiences and politically ambiguous messages to engage the public to think critically about a social issue.

Amidst my anger and passion to do something myself, I thought perhaps I could find a way to do the same?

But how would I, a college student in New York, bring awareness to my peers and potentially the world about the refugee crisis? I felt micro in the macrocosm of the crisis, and so I decided to start small - in the form of a sticker.

Street art and graffiti spreads awareness of refugee crisis_Personal_McCormick_Body Image 6.jpg#CrumblingBorders Sticker
Image: Madison McCormick - Madison McCormick

The final design, entitled #CrumblingBorders, was created as a collaboration between some fellow students and myself last fall. It shows a hand ripping through a map with the cracks disrupting the continents, just as refugees disrupt previously established borders. The hand represents a sense of helplessness, but also hope as it reaches for something - such as a family member or new soil. I think it also touches upon a larger notion in that we're all constantly moving, having to uproot ourselves, whether it's between cities, states, or countries. 

I decided to call this street art activism campaign Tag & Seek - as in I ‘tag’ the stickers and others ‘seek’ to find out more about the design, what it stands for, and how they can help.

street art and graffiti spreads awareness of refugee crisis_McCormick_Meghan Simon_Body Image 7.jpgImage: Madison McCormick -Meghan Simon

Once the sticker was made, I tagged it around New York and distributed it to friends traveling elsewhere to spread the conversation. In a means to create a home base for the sticker, I created an Instagram account to document and post educational information on the refugee crisis. I even began selling the sticker for $1 each to raise funds for the International Rescue Committee, an organization assisting in refugee crises around the world on the ground. 

street art and graffiti spreads awareness of refugee crisis_McCormick_Cara Scott_Body Image 8.jpgImage: Madison McCormick - Cara Scott

After tagging the sticker in New York, I traveled to Istanbul and Athens to do the same and see if street artists and graffiti taggers closer to the crisis were using street art to start a conversation about it.

What I found there (surprisingly or not) -- a majority were in solidarity with refugees:


Street art and graffiti spread awareness of reguee crisis_Madison McCormick_Madison McCormick_Body 9.pngArtists: Icy & Sot
Image: Madison McCormick - Madison McCormick

street art refugee crisis_Madison McCormick_McCormick_Body 10.png"I see humans but no humanity" Artist, Anonymous
Image: Madison McCormick - Madison McCormick


Street art refugee crisis_McCormick_McCormick_Body 11.png"No Borders" Artist, Anonymous
Image: Madison McCormick - Madison McCormick

street art refugee crisis_McCormick_McCormick_Body 12.pngMural of Alan, Artist, Anonymous
Image: Madison McCormick - Madison McCormick

street art refugee crisis_McCormick_McCormick_Body 13.png"In solidarity with the refugees" Artist, Anonymous
Image: Madison McCormick - Madison McCormick

street art refugee crisis_McCormick_McCormick_Body 14.jpg"A world without borders" Artist, Anonymous
Image: Madison McCormick - Madison McCormick

Street art and graffiti, as I see it, act as a means to reclaim the public space. There is opportunity in street art to start conversations and engage in social activism. By using the street as a platform for social change, the potential impact may start small, but can catalyze a range of larger impact actions down the road!

Maybe you are angry of the atrocities surrounding the crisis. Maybe you are passionate to help those in need. Maybe you just want to get creative with a purpose! Whatever the reason, just remember that anything helps - from awareness to fundraising to creating something as small as a sticker.

June 20th is World Refugee Day. Be sure to take action here and help make a difference in the lives of refugees everywhere!

If you’re interested in this subject, check out 15 other pieces of street art to show solidarity with the refugees. Or continue to follow the Tag & Seek campaign or get a hold of #CrumblingBorders stickers, you may do so on Instagram and Facebook.