Painting without permission: Graffiti & Street Art as a response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine

In the weeks leading up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and ever since tanks rolled over the border, an increase in anti-war, more specifically anti-Russian, and anti-Putin graffiti and street art has been produced.

This type of urban public art, collectively referred to as “Conflict Graffiti” was in many respects predictable, however the unique messages and images and where they have been placed were not.

When events, similar to the Russian incursion into Ukraine occur, we almost always see provocative graffiti, street art and similar kinds of public art.

We experienced this when COVID-19 first appeared, Briana Taylor was shot by Lexington, Kentucky Police officers, George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, and supporters of the Black Lives matter movement took to the streets during the spring of 2020.

No public surface seems untouched by anti-war, Russia, and Putin graffiti and street art, and the photographs of this work have been posted on almost all social media channels. Likewise some of this work has then been amplified by mainstream media news coverage.

Not only has anti-war, anti-Russian and anti-Putin graffiti and street art been seen in Ukraine, but we have witnessed this work in neighboring formerly eastern bloc countries (those geographically close to Russia – Romania, Poland, etc.), across the European Union, and as far away as Israel, the United States, Canada, and New Zealand.

Noteworthy is a substantial amount of graffiti and street art in Russia (on walls and in subway stations), in particular St. Petersburg and Moscow, where protests against the war has been heavy, is illegal, and has led to the arrest of countless numbers of people. Thus, in the Russian context engaging in graffiti and street art is not simply a passing critique of government policies and leaders, but it is a form of nonviolent resistance and a weapon of the weak.

What kinds of graffiti and street art have been produced ? Some of the slogans and phrases that have been painted on surfaces, both in English and Russian, all in capital letters, are as simple as “NO WAR” or “NO TO WAR.” Others include, “PRAY FOR UKRAINE,” along with images of people next to or colored in the pattern of the Ukrainian flag. Otherwise most wall writing seems to be directed towards Russia (e.g., “STOP RUSSIAN FASCISM”), or Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader in the form of “PUTIN WAR CRIMINAL,” “NO PUTIN NO CRY,” and “ADOLF PUTIN” comparing him to the universally despised former leader of Nazi Germany.

There are more colorful and detailed pieces of graffiti and street art with images vilifying Putin, by depicting him as Hitler or Voldemort from the Harry Potter stories. Also prominent on the streets in different locations are also more detailed mural like images of Ukrainians (e.g., Skakun, Polina, etc.) who have died at the hands of Russian soldiers. Many of the images use the Ukrainian flag as part of its color palate. The street art that has been produced includes stickers and flyers/wheat pastes that have appeared bearing many of these same phrases and images.

Meanwhile, it’s not just subterranean groups who are engaging in graffiti/street art, or borrowing its ethos. For example, in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, Remigijus Simasius, the mayor, enlisted the aid of a local graffiti writer to spray paint “Putin, the Hague is waiting for you,” on a bridge near the Russia embassy. We also saw a group of 70 artists in Germany who painted, “LET US BUILD BRIDGES,” on the surface of a bridge that is slated for demolition. These pieces are interesting and engaging, but unlike traditional graffiti and street art, they are not transgressive in nature.

As the invasion progresses there will be new subthemes that emerge that will provide the basis for new phrases and images that will appear both in the Ukraine and throughout the world.

However it’s equally important to remember that although graffiti and street art may be interesting, provocative, and educational, it’s going to take more than this type of political activity to bring an end to the brutality that is reigning upon Ukraine and its citizens.

Photo credit:
“Путін іди на хуй” – “Putin idy na khuy”
“Putin, go fuck yourself”
Street art by @nick_sweetman @mr_tensoe2 @twice.born @workingspy3000