Just hours after last November's attacks in Paris, memorial T-shirts, trucker caps, bracelets, and even Christmas decorations went on sale at the online marketplace Etsy. The speed with which these trinkets appeared on the site may seem in bad taste—the concept of "too soon" made tangible—but it was certainly nothing new. In fact, the phenomenon of online retailers making new products in response to tragedies has its own name within the Etsy community: "tragicrafting."
After Robin Williams's suicide you could buy a charm bracelet with tiny coffins hanging alongside cameos of the actor. After the death of Whitney Houston, Etsy users listed handmade wall clocks and Whitney matryoshka dolls. And then there's the 9/11 merchandise: included in the vast assortment of keepsakes are hundreds of memorial bracelets, Christmas baubles, and even fire axes with the number of firefighters' lives lost carved into the wooden handle.
Steph Freeland, a jewelry seller from Brighton, said she first saw tragicrafting items on Etsy pop up after the attack on Charlie Hebdo's Paris offices in January of 2015.
"I didn't pay too much attention to tragicrafting until the Charlie Hebdo attack, then I started noticing it on a greater scale," she told me, adding that she feels disgusted by the sellers—a feeling shared by many others in the community who have used the website's forum to ask why tragicrafting is allowed. Another seller, who asked to remain anonymous, said she was disturbed by the number of items themed around the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012, which went on sale within hours of the event.
"They just see any important event, good or bad, as an opportunity to make money," said Freeland. "It makes me feel sick—it's like they're wishing for more tragedies to happen just to pocket more dosh."
Tragicrafting has been called immoral, disrespectful, and just plain tacky, but Freeland reluctantly agreed that there is a market for these items, whether it's for the purpose of memorial, to show solidarity, or as a way to face up to horrific world events.
Another British Etsy seller said: "Some members have clearly said they would buy to show solidarity. This seems absurd to me! Perhaps it's a culture difference [many of the items are made by sellers in the USA], or perhaps it's that those people feel they need to do something, but don't really know what. Who knows?"
However, many members of Etsy argue that it's an issue of freedom of expression—when does a bracelet or a T-shirt stop becoming a creative item and become something offensive?
Lisa Nichols makes festive memorial baubles at her home in Connecticut. She has recently added a Paris bauble to her line, which also includes Christmas decorations to commemorate 9/11, the Sandy Hook massacre, and the Boston Marathon bombings.
Her first bauble was to honor the anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and six adult staff members in December of 2012. The tragedy took place close to Nichols's home and she wanted to do something to pay tribute to the victims. The clear bauble she made is neatly decorated with a sparkly green ribbon, glitter, and a silver "love" charm. Inside, it's stuffed with little seed pearls.
Nichols explained the design process to me. "We normally add the number of white pearls inside the bauble to equal the number of lives lost," she said. "With larger tragedies such as 9/11 and Paris, we include a good number of pearls. We use the school, city, or country colors as well in each design."
For Nichols, tragicrafting has helped her work through the horror of the massacre close to her home. "Creating memorial baubles was, and continues to be, therapeutic," she told me. "When tragedies occur, we all want to help, but are not sure how to help."
She admits that the memorial baubles don't sell very well, but says her intent is never to profit from tragedy. Instead, she donates a portion of the proceeds to charity. Many people in the Etsy forums feel that all of the profits from the sale of these memorial items should be going to charity, although most of the time they don't.
Shared experience of a tragedy is common among tragicrafters, and several people I spoke to had lived near Sandy Hook Elementary School at the time of the shooting. "The impact the tragedy had on lives here in Connecticut was incredible. We feel we can relate as other communities around the world experience tragedies as well," said Nichols.
Danielle Beerli feels a close connection to Europe, after living in Madrid and Switzerland when she was young, before returning to raise a family in her hometown in Connecticut. She has visited Paris three times and recently bought a "Peace for Paris" T-shirt from SideStreetprint, a T-shirt shop on Etsy. Along with the "Pray for Paris" top, Sidestreetprint's "Je suis Charlie" T-shirts have been selling particularly well since the attacks in November.
Beerli saw the "Peace for Paris" symbol, created by French graphic designer Jean Jullien, on television and immediately loved it. "What a way to represent such a powerful idea and statement without any words," she said.
Beerli believes that wearing the T-shirt is a reminder of the lives lost in terror attacks, even after the media coverage starts to fade. "I bought the shirt as a reminder that when something like this occurs, many parts of the world come together in support and show that we are all united," she told me.
Many Etsy customers strongly disagree and say that tragicrafting not only offends them, but also makes them question why Etsy allows such items to be listed in the first place. After all, the website has a strict policy on prohibited items, banning hate items, pornographic content, and anything that promotes, supports, or glorifies violence.
An Etsy spokesperson said: "We will not take down items solely on the basis that they refer to tragic events. We realize that people experience a range of emotions in the aftermath of loss and tragedy, and that everyone copes differently. Some people use art to deal with anxiety and fear."
Perhaps it has to do with context—with the internet being the perfect platform for people to complain anonymously, to air their grudges against tragicrafting with thousands of miles of fibre optic cable between them and whoever it is they're railing against. After all, are these tragicrafting items really any different to the tricolor flags on sale outside Wembley Stadium before the England vs. France match on November 17, or the worldwide rush to add the French flag to Facebook profile pictures?
It comes down to how comfortable we are with branding a tragedy—how comfortable we are with shouting out our feelings about horrifying world events.
Etsy, for its part, remains committed to freedom of expression. When I asked them about the ethical side of tragicrafting, a spokesperson said: "Art is incredibly subjective, and what is offensive to one is not necessarily offensive to others. We do not condone profiting from tragic events, but we do value artistic and creative responses to the emotions that surface at these times."
They make a valid point: people react to—and express themselves through—art in very different ways. So if making a bauble is an effective way for one person to deal with their grief, why should anyone else be able to stop them from doing just that?
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