#OccupyGezi: The art of the Turkish protests

The Occupy Gezi movement started in Istanbul with the aim of preserving one of the very few green areas left in the city and turned into a group of massive, nation-wide anti-government protests. This has ignited a flurry of creative production which has resulted in a variety of posters, banners and street art

Two street stencils on walls in Istanbul

The Occupy Gezi movement started in Istanbul with the aim of preserving one of the very few green areas left in the city and turned into a group of massive, nation-wide anti-government protests. This has ignited a flurry of creative production which has resulted in a variety of posters, banners and street art…

This post was originally published on the V&A Museum’s Posters blog. Our thanks to V&A curator Catherine Flood and Yaman Kayabali for permission to repost it here.

The protests that started with the Occupy movement in Istanbul have since spread to other Turkish cities such as the capital Ankara and Turkey’s third largest city, Izmir.

Twitter was officially labeled as a “troublemaker” by the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan after the start of the protests as it was instrumental in distributing information for the protestors in a time when the traditional media practiced self-censorship.

The Twitter bird wearing a gas mask is displayed in a stencil along with the most famous hashtag of the Gezi protests, #occupygezi (shown, above left). The gas mask, which has now become an everyday object for the Turkish protestors, is a reference to the enormous amount of teargas used by the police.

On the other hand, the stencil of a defiant penguin who also wears a gas mask (above right) symbolises the media corruption in Turkey. Penguins are now associated with the self-censorship of the mainstream Turkish media after CNN Turk, a major news channel, broadcast a documentary on penguins while the civil protests and police violence were at their peak – instead of covering what was happening on the streets.


Digital poster depicting a protester throwing a tear gas canister. The text reads ‘Mr Officer You Dropped Something’

Turkish police have been harshly criticized by the protestors due to the use of an unprecedented amount of tear gas, as well as the police violence witnessed during the protests.

Yet, among the images that are circulated in the social media which support the protestors and criticise the government or the police, humour dominates. The text in the digital poster above reads ‘Mr. Officer You Dropped Something’ – it is written on a blurred photo in which an activist is throwing back an active tear gas canister back at the riot police.

Two posters featuring portraits of the Turkish Prime Minister

The street art shown, above left, plays with the image of Sex Pistols’ iconic album cover by inserting the portrait of the Turkish Prime Minister in place of the Queen’s.

The word ‘Queen’ is changed to ‘Sultan’, a reference to the absolute monarchs of the Ottoman Empire, the ruling state of Turkey before the modern Republic. It is also a testament of the international legacy of punk and its relevance today in the midst of public rebellion.

The digital poster shown, above right, uses Prime Minister Erdogan’s portait by the photographer Platon in the background and displays the phrase ‘Keep Calm And Be Capulcu’. The Prime Minister had used the word “capulcu” – which means looter – to describe the activists after the protests grew in magnitude on May 31.

The word capulcu was quickly adopted by the protestors who started to define themselves as such. This has a humorous irony because the protestors did not see themselves as looters, since the dominant majority of them were well-educated urban middle class people who abstained from looting and other acts of vandalism.

The images above are also reflective of globalism today, since they refer to international icons to convey their messages.

As the Gezi protests developed, artists, designers and other creatives quickly responded to the photographs circulating on social media. Some of these images now enjoy an iconic status since they have been used over and over in different media.

A woman in red being sprayed with pepper spray in Gezi Park and a street stencil reproducing the image

The image of a policeman blowing pepper spray on a woman in a red dress (above left), rapidly became the most recognised symbol of the protests and was transposed to the city walls, streets and roads with stencils.

The girl in red in the stencil image (above right) is considerably larger than the policeman – symbolising the growth of the resistance as the police violence got rougher.

A whirling dervish wearing a gas mask while performing in Gezi Park and a street stencil reproducing the image and the phrase ‘Come along!’

The image of a whirling dervish with a gas mask (above), who performed in the occupied Gezi Park was also taken up by street artists.

The phrase ‘Come along!’ was added in the stencil. ‘Come along’ is a reference to a poem by Jalal al-Din Rumi, whose followers had founded the Order of the Whirling Dervishes. The poem was written in the 13th century and it still makes a very powerful and moving statement in the context of the Occupy Gezi movement:

Come, come, whoever you are, come again. / Whether heathen, zoroastrian or idolatrous, come again, / Ours is not a caravan of despair, / Come again, even if you have broken your vow a hundred times.

A girl in Istanbul being hit by a water cannon

Another image which rose to prominence during the protests was the girl who stood in front of a police water cannon opening her arms, exposing her torso (above).

Her image became a symbol of non-violent resistance against police force and is displayed on a variety of printed or digital posters about the protests.

Below are two digital posters created to be used in the social media. The phrase written as a hashtag in the posters – ‘Diren Gezi Parki’ – means ‘Gezi Park Resist’ and this has become one of the favourite hashtags of the Occupy Gezi movement.

Two posters depicting the iconic image of a girl hit by a water cannon

The colourful yet simple graphic design below, which states the demands of the protestors, reflects the youthful energy of the activists.

The design is clean – each demand is symbolised by a single visual, with distinct background colours. The specific words of each demand are also emphasised by an increase in font size of certain words. This helps to convey the message clearly by avoiding a wall of text.

Graphic listing the Taksim Square demands

Considering that these images, which are only a handful among many, are a result of the past 15 days (since the protests began), there is going to be a lot more as the protests and the occupy movement continue.

Whatever the outcome of these events, it is certain that the artists, designers and activists have responded rapidly, with a highly creative and humorous body of works to the Occupy Gezi movement. It will definitely have a rich visual legacy for future generations.

Yaman Kayabali is a postgraduate student in the Art History and Museum Curating program of the University of Sussex. Prior to his studies at Sussex, he worked as a project coordinator in an exhibition design company in Istanbul. His area of interest is the relationship between art and politics. He is currently researching on the effects of political ideology on the early republican architecture in the new capital of modern Turkey with a comparative perspective of Turkey’s Western European counterparts. Yaman is currently an intern in the Research Department at the V&A.

This post was originally published on the V&A Museum’s Posters blog, here. It is reproduced with permission.

Pink Floyd fans may recognise the cover of our June issue. It’s the original marked-up artwork for Dark Side of the Moon: one of a number of treasures from the archive of design studio Hipgnosis featured in the issue, along with an interview with Aubrey Powell, co-founder of Hipgnosis with the late, great Storm Thorgerson. Elsewhere in the issue we take a first look at The Purple Book: Symbolism and Sensuality in Contemporary Illustration, hear from the curators of a fascinating new V&A show conceived as a ‘walk-in book’ plus we have all the regular debate and analysis on the world of visual communications.

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  • Tara Hopkins

    I wish more articles on international events gave as much (concise) background as this one does! This is such an amazing movement to witness/be part of; there is so much background information needed to grasp just why – Yaman Kayabali wraps it all up pretty well! Now to go back and revel in the creativity…

  • I’ve seen a couple more you should add to your list. One is an amazing watercolor shared which shows the lady in red being tear gassed and her hair is blown and extended in many different colors. It just furthers the iconic nature of that photo, which surely will be honored with all kinds of international photo awards. Another graphic shows all of the iconic citizens of the protests across a banner used for Facebook profiles: there’s the lady in red, the lady in black, standing man, Carsi protesters, plus a couple others. Lastly, there’s all the examples of great paintings that show a police man tear gassing people in the painting: Sunday in the Park, Christina’s World, etc.

  • Been watching this unfold on the news. Thanks for providing some great examples. Where there is any form of struggle one finds excellent photo opportunities. And let’s not forget imagery has been fundamental in many a “revolution” – or even mass organisation of protesting groups.

  • Ceynur Nak

    Dear Yaman – Thank you very much for such an informative and creative description of what happened in our beloved city Istanbul. The way you have expressed it not only fortified the meaning of the occupy Gezi event but also touched my heart in a very deepened way. Yet it is very well written and artfully crafted for someone who has never heard and/or been part of it. We are very proud of you! Way to go! and congratulations! Ceynur Nak.

  • Ay?e Dodanl?

    thanx for your creative efforts…only one important thing I would like to add to our demands is that the countries and the firms who produce and sell all these chemical weapons that have been used on people also have to be brought to international human rights courts and pay for their damaging produce .the chemical weapons industry in our world have to come to an end.no more poison producing,selling and using…..thank you very much…

  • Rlbe

    Just a small correction to the poem: “yine gel” means “come nevertheless” and not “come again” – it’s a call to everyone regardless their identities, not a call to those who’ve gone away

  • John L.

    Also this became a viral among Turkish citizens in 3 days and been shut down by some fraud copyright infringement issue on youtube!