‘Stronger with art’: Ukrainian street artist paints to boost morale

(Reuters): Gamlet Zinkivskiy is creating murals he hopes can boost morale and provide a brief antidote to conflict in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s battle-scarred second city.

It’s best known street artist says his works are apolitical. But one on plywood that has sealed the entrance of a municipal building gutted by Russian warheads says otherwise.

The three-metre-high painting of a gasoline canister and bottles with rags stuffed in their necks memorialises the petrol bombs made by civilians to help thwart Russia’s onslaughts on Kharkiv and Kiev in February.

“Russian soldiers really believed that in Kharkiv and Kiev people would greet them with flowers,” he recalled. “But (they) met the Russians with Molotov cocktails.”

Still, Zinkivskiy maintained, his main reason for painting is not making political statements but “giving people something new to think about”.

“Normal life is coming back,” said Zinkivskiy, 35, who sometimes wears body armour while he paints. “War and bombs are not the only thing…We are stronger with art.”

‘A separate nation’

Zinkivskiy was persuaded to carry on painting by Vsevolod Kozhemyako, a prominent businessman who organised a volunteer militia to fight Russian forces.

For Kozhemyako, who also supports internationally acclaimed Ukrainian poet and novelist Sergiy Zhedan, promoting the arts as the country battles for survival is more than just a way of maintaining public morale.

It also is a means, he said, to counter Russian President Vladimir Putin’s contention that modern Ukraine is historically and culturally inseparable from Russia.

Ukrainian artists and writers “remind, first of all the people who live here and the world and the Russians that we area separate nation,” said Kozhemyako. 

Zinkivskiy, who earns a living selling his studio art, paints in only grey, black and white. He sketches his murals on cards in his studio before heading out to create the full-scale works.

Some feature only Ukrainian words and some echo themes from the conflict.

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