‘MADE BY REFUGEE’ Stickers Spark A Global Conversation
A Facebook rant turns into a political statement at Key Foods
Photographer Kien Quan along with his partner Jillian Young have been traveling to local grocery stores, book stores and record shops slapping their “Made by Refugee” stickers on any product that qualifies. As Quan explains on his website, “While most countries have strong disapproval for refugees, we created these posters and stickers to remind the world that they have always made impactful contributions to humanity.”
MASS APPEAL spoke with Quan about his project over the phone, just before he boarded an international flight.
Have you been getting kicked out of many grocery stores?
I live in Astoria [Queens] so I just went out to the supermarket and eventually we did get kicked out. It wasn’t on camera though.
Has anybody tried to fact check you about your interpretation of “Made by Refugee”?
There’s definitely a huge population of conservative and alt-right activists. You know, basically internet trolls, that try to fact check. It’s really up to how you interpret it, but I interpret a refugee as someone who’s escaping some sort of turmoil, political or not.
So how many of these stickers do you think have been put up so far?
I’d say definitely it’s in the hundreds, but it’s only been a few weeks. I’ll go throw up a few at supermarkets as I go around getting groceries and stuff. I’ll just like plaster ’em on and just keep walking.
Do you have a crew out there putting these up?
It’s myself and a couple other friends, but we have a lot of people online who ask us to download the stickers. If you guys feel like distributing the stickers feel free.
It’s funny to think about these stickers sneaking their way into someone’s grocery bags who may not agree with your message.
The people that actually work there kind of don’t give a damn. They don’t care. One dude actually in the Key Foods video he’s like watching us for like ten minutes and eventually he comes up to us and is like, “Dude, what are guys doing?” I explained it to him and he’s like, “I agree with you 100%. I’m gonna walk in and quit tomorrow, so I’m gonna pretend like I didn’t see anything, but I really support your message.”
I remember another store, the manager came up and was like, “What are you guys doing?” I explained it to him and he’s like, “Okay, I get it, just put it at the bottom because we want to be able to scan.”
As long as you don’t cover up the barcode I guess they’re cool with it!
Exactly. Which is kind of weird because some of these stickers are large, so they will take up the whole image. I haven’t run into like any real negative interactions except the one in Key Foods but that was, like, a news reporter. It was kind of loud and there’s like a giant camcorder on this dude’s shoulder. It was kind of sketch, you know?
Totally. Could you tell us about your personal connection to the project?
Yeah, to be honest I’m definitely not a refugee. I came here as an immigrant, but I was sponsored by my family that were refugees. There’s a lot of people that left Vietnam during the war. Right now it’s doing well, but before it was a pretty damn poor country and people wanted a better life. Going to America was definitely the dream. Now it’s like everyone wants to go everywhere else but America.
What drove you to make these?
It just came from me ranting on Facebook. I think it was a Times article about this whole immigration scenario, where people are still against bringing in refugees. During the Vietnam war, the proof of race for Vietnamese refugees was soooo ridiculously against us. Same thing when the Irish were coming over. Same thing with the Jews during the Holocaust. The biggest argument by people that support Breitbart News or any kind of conservative site is, “We like Muslims, we’re not racist but we don’t wanna bring terrorists in with the Muslims.” The same thing happened with the Jews: they didn’t wanna bring in Nazis mistaking them as Jewish refugees. It’s like the same story keeps repeating over and over.
I think it was The Davis Museum at Wellesley College that removed all of the work in their collection created by immigrant artists through President’s Day weekend. It was a strong statement. Without contributions from refugees, what do we have left?
Unless you’re a Native American then we’re all “in the same boat” so to speak.
Exactly. So when people try to argue, I don’t know what goes through their head. I just explain to them, like, “Dude, you guys aren’t even from here. You might be born here, but it’s not your land.” I try to explain it to people, but they don’t get it.
So yeah, back to the original idea. I was ranting on Facebook that if this dude never came over from Vietnam you guys wouldn’t be talking about how, like, “Sriracha saved your life.”
I just realized that this rant is actually kind of a cool perspective. I was just trying to figure out how to get this message out. When it comes to street art. it’s low cost and it gets the point across in a more radical way.
Street art is just about doing the best with what you have.
Exactly, and sometimes I find that the least costly things actually have the best message.
It’s also a great play on the whole “Made in USA” thing.
It’s funny, because we were actually trying to figure out a design for a long time. We were going back and forth. Should we make this like the “Made in NY” stickers? Or should we make it like “Made in China”?
This started off as a small project, but it got picked up by so many different outlets around the world, Germany to Spain to China. I just found it really interesting because this is kind of global. This is a global conversation.
What about the design?
It’s really important to talk about design, especially when it comes to the sticker world, the graffiti world and the arts. We were trying to figure out designs, like, “What is the best symbol for a refugee?” The only thing we found were stock silhouettes of a mother and child walking together, probably the most vague representation. We found out this orange-and-black symbol is actually a symbol of this organization called The Refugee Nation. They’re trying to establish a flag for refugees because they don’t have a flag or a place to call home. So the orange and black is actually representation of what most refugees see, which is a lifejacket.
Download your own pack of Made By Refugee stickers here.