An image of the Virgin Mary holding an anti-tank Javelin missile has become an unlikely symbol of the Ukrainian resistance as well as a popular streetwear brand – with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy its most famous fan.
The logo, based on a design by poster artist Chris Shaw, started life being printed on a handful of stickers, but now adorns on sweatshirts, T-shirts, baseball caps, flags and mugs to raise money for Ukrainian charities. Since mid-February, “Saint Javelin” has helped sell £1.4 million ($1.8m) of merch, donating £600,000 in the process.
Former freelance journalist Christian Borys, who reported for VICE from eastern Ukraine in 2015 along with other news outlets, understands the power of propaganda. “[Ukraine has] done an unbelievable job of getting the message out about the war,” he told VICE World News via phone interview from Krakow, Poland. “It’s clear who the good guy and the bad guy is.”
Saint Javelin capitalises on huge Western support for the Ukrainian army. The decisive tools in Ukraine’s arsenal have been portable missiles, such as the US-made Javelin, used to devastating effect despite their short range.
Photo: Christian Borys
Borys, 35, from Toronto, kind of stumbled across the idea. He started selling stickers of “Saint Javelin” on his personal Instagram account to raise cash for Help Us Help, a charity that runs education and relocation projects.
Borys was amazed by the high demand.
“A friend sent me the meme and printed stickers of it, so I said ‘Oh I want to print one to put on my car,’” he said. “I put it on my personal Instagram account, selling stickers for C$10 (£6, $8) and that night there were two sales for C$80, and the next night was C$1,000.
“My fiance thought I’d ordered way too many stickers… but the next day we got a C$5,000 order and I thought, ‘oh shit’”.
The site has massively expanded and it also hosts merch for Combat Racoon, a Ukrainian combat unit trying to raise money for SUVs for the frontline, but Borys says he doesn’t know how much money has been raised for them.
He added, “I never expected anything like what ended up happening.”
What ended up happening was the brand getting a massive endorsement from Zelenskyy himself, who was presented with a special customised Saint Javelin T-shirt by Oleksii Reznikov, the Ukrainian defence minister.
Reznikov found out about the brand from one of Borys’ friends, and requested a customised T-shirt for himself, and one for the visiting Estonian defence minister. Borys drove to the government district in Kyiv to present the garments.
Oleksii Reznikov, Borys, his friend Anna Kyrii, and the Estonian defence minister Kalle Laanet. PHOTO: Christian Borys
“The whole experience was so surreal,” Borys said. “Reznikov gave me a gift from the Ukrainian government and we took some photos. I said, ‘hey I’ve also got a shirt for the president, and I’d really appreciate it if you gave it to him because you’ll see him before I do.’ he said OK, but I assumed he’d forget as he’s minister for defence in a country at war.”
But he did remember.
“He messaged me later and said, ‘the president has your T-shirt’ and then 10 minutes later one of our team sent me the TikTok video of him getting it. I remember looking at my phone and thinking, ‘holy fuck this is crazy’ and my phone started going crazy.
“In a longer video, Zelenskyy asks where I’m from… it was all so surreal and happened so fast.”
After the meeting, Borys tweeted, “We have meme’d our way into the highest levels of power.”
Next, Borys wants to make sure all its products, which are currently made via a third-party supplier local to wherever the customers are worldwide, are all made in Ukraine. He has scoped out a factory in the besieged city of Kharkiv to make hats. “It’s hard right now because most of the factories are fucked up or workers are fighting,” he says.
“In the same way Patagonia wants to be a brand to save the environment, we want to save Ukraine.”