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Peace, Love, & Protests: The Creative Community Responds to the Ukraine Invasion

Seven illustrators capture the mood following Putin’s attack on Ukraine

The first missiles fell at 5 a.m. local time on February 24. Following weeks of military build-up and increasingly antagonistic comments, Russian president Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine. As civilians fled their homes, towards the border or into underground shelters, the global creative community was quick to respond. From Poland to Portugal, Russia to Ukraine, illustrators and designers captured the world’s reactions to the chaos and confusion when the news stopped making sense.

“I think everyone who woke up to the horrible news [that morning] found it difficult to carry on with business as usual,” says Ed Dingli, an illustrator based in Lisbon, Portugal. “It’s so tough to digest injustices that you see going on in the world, drawing is my way of processing it. I guess it’s a form of catharsis, but it’s also a weapon of expression, a show of solidarity.” 

Nearby Kyiv, in an undisclosed location he describes as a “not bad bunker,” Ukrainian type designer Ivan Tsanko remains defiant. “I am not safe. None of us are,” he tells me. “But you know, it’s my home, it’s my country and I am ready to die for this.” A couple of weeks before the invasion, Tsanko published an update to his popular Otto Attack typeface, and made it available for free, for designers to incorporate into protest graphics.

“I think about my fonts as weapons. Glock Grotesk, Attack type. Our Ukrainian scripts are our shields, our language is our weapon. Since typography informs how we look at language, I want to use it as a weapon for peace. It’s the least I can do for my country,” he explains, before emphatically adding; “but what we really need is help from all free countries. Let Ukraine join NATO and the EU.”

Parts of Russia’s creative community echo these cries. “Freedom for Ukraine. Putin to the gallows. No to war,” says Leta Minor, a 21-year-old illustrator in Saint Petersburg, who says her work serves to “make people understand that citizens of Russia are against what is happening in Ukraine now. Russian artists cannot be silent and will shout about their position as long as we have a voice.”

Reacting to the news while it was still hot, illustrators opted for visual simplicity. Those first 24 hours were characterized by a raw immediacy; some creatives called for peace, others a call to arms. Others still shared messages of solidarity with those affected, or expressed their shock and sadness. Hundreds more works are being shared every day; people are mobilizing to help, and donations are coming in. But the situation remains critical; the missiles continue to fall as millions are still stuck in the country, including several thousand African students brutally denied safe passage to Poland. In such unsettling times, these little illustrated squares have the power to make a big impact.

I spoke to some of the first designers and illustrators to share their work on instagram in the immediate aftermath of the invasion to gain an insight into what was going through their minds at that time. Our conversations have been edited for clarity.

The founders of multi-disciplinary studio Facultative Works, based in Saint Petersburg, Russia, were compelled to show their audience that “we are radically against this war.” Between checking in on their friends and relatives in Ukraine, bidding farewell to those emigrating from Russia to avoid conscription, going to local demonstrations and running away from the cops, they created a work that hangs in the middle between peace and protest.

Resources

Check GoFundMe’s list of verified fundraisers
Support vulnerable Black people in Ukraine
Make a crypto donation through UkraineDAO
Attend a rally or sign a petition through @razom.for.ukraine
Talk to your kids about their concerns
Read up on the history of the Russia-Ukraine crisis

1
Maria Milenko 

The illustrator and co-founder of Hugmun design studio in Copenhagen, Denmark drew upon her childhood illustration style to bring simplicity into complexity. “I think that people have a need for this type of illustration again,” she says. “We can easily get overstimulated with the amount of visuals in everyday life, so I find this simple style comforting.”

My illustration shows many people holding a heart together in the two colors of the Ukrainian flag. The heart is sort of divided by the colors but it also creates one thing. The people are holding it and supporting it. The visual reference of the heart is very simple and straightforward, but I think it is honest. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is something that concerns us all. I wanted to show it as plainly as possible: people uniting to support Ukraine, in any way that is possible. The only way we can oppose the tyranny of people like Putin is by uniting. I feel like war is something we shouldn’t be dealing with anymore, and it’s hard not to feel helpless. I wanted to illustrate people who still have hope even when they are not sure what they are doing, or if their small actions can actually change something. We just have to keep trying.

2
Paweł Szlotawa 

The Polish designer, grad student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Łódź, and LGBTQ+ activist views his graphic as a vehicle for his main intent; to share key information about supporting Ukraine while expressing solidarity with his friends and people in Ukraine.

The situation in Ukraine is dramatic. I can’t imagine how the Ukrainians feel. I wish I would never need an excuse to create graphics like this again. The poster was created very quickly, but the key point for me was to tell people how to support Ukraine by using my internet reach to share important information. I believe social media can do a lot of good. I am physically unable to do anything for the people of Ukraine, but I try to publish fundraisers and protests to help as much as I can.

 

3
Karolis Strautniekas 

The prominent Vilnius, Lithuania-based illustrator, whose clients include The New York Times, Forbes, Variety and Wired, shared an image that makes a clear political statement. A portrait of Putin shows his tie turning into a snake to form a Pinocchio-style nose, accompanied by a caption describing him as “a blatant liar, manipulator and psychopath.” Rendered in a furious black-and-red color palette, the image attracted 29,000 likes and heartfelt thanks from Ukrainian nationals, while other users accused him of perpetuating Western propaganda.

This was my instant reaction to the morning news of Feb 24th. I felt very overwhelmed, shocked, sad, and angry simultaneously. I knew that I must share these feelings somehow and show support to the people of Ukraine. I received a ton of reactions, mostly appreciation. But there’s that other part exposed to propaganda for years. This realization is very frustrating.

 

4
Olia Marchenko and Lesha Galkin of Facultative Works 

The founders of multi-disciplinary studio Facultative Works, based in Saint Petersburg, Russia, were compelled to show their audience that “we are radically against this war.” Between checking in on their friends and relatives in Ukraine, bidding farewell to those emigrating from Russia to avoid conscription, going to local demonstrations and running away from the cops, they created a work that hangs in the middle between peace and protest.

 

The word “Peace” is written by a flourishing plant with spikes that burst an inflatable Kalashnikov rifle. We are furious and desperate, so we just can’t draw white doves and symbols of love, because for now we want to tear this Russian system into pieces! We still don’t think that aggression is a way to deal with war, but in this case just the desire for peace is not enough; there is a need to fight, albeit in peaceful ways.

We are afraid that people outside Russia don’t quite understand how surrealistic our regime is. Russians weren’t asked whether we’d like to start a war with Ukraine (what a stupid question that would be, because obviously all thinking human beings would be against it). After the totalitarian ex-Soviet regime, Russian people have a very passive and fearful attitude towards politics, so they allow the authorities to do whatever they want, and that’s why we are in such a hell now. We go to protests everyday, and we see how protesters have been beaten with batons and stuffed into cages for shouting “no war” — but that’s nothing compared to the death threats of our brothers in Ukraine, so everyone in Russia must protest.

5
Ed Dingli 

Originally from Malta and now based in Lisbon, Portugal, the designer-illustrator Ed Dingli took inspiration from a 1968 peace poster by Joe Simboli, featuring a peace dove whose feathers form part of a hand to symbolize “stop the war” [in Vietnam]; reminding us that history repeats itself.

In my version, the dove is crying against the colors of the Ukrainian flag. Often the more complicated the work is, the harder it is to get the message across. In this case the dove, hand and Ukrainian flag make for a simple image that has immediate impact.

I think there are many downsides to social media, but one of the positives is how images of solidarity, hope and empathy can be spread across a global community, and these were certainly the sentiments I carried while creating this image. Art has the power to unite in the most difficult of times, when people feel helpless and unable to cope with the knowledge of suffering of others. It’s powerful and reassuring to see a reaction from the creative community, in voicing the many emotions and responses of the public. 

6
Alice Hoffmann 

With a flair for imbuing her subjects with an innocent optimism, the Zurich, Switzerland-based illustrator’s response to the crisis was motivated by her maternal instincts.

I read a story in the newspaper about a Ukrainian mother asking, “What have we done to him?” The helplessness and fear that innocent parents and children are going through must be horrible, and I wanted to express my feelings about it somehow, as a mother of two children myself. 

I thought about a simple way to picture the current situation: peace is threatened by something bad. I chose to visualize the recognized symbols—a dove and a bomb—facing each other with distinct facial expressions in a naive illustration style to make it understandable and accessible for them. The composition plays with the colors of the Ukrainian flag to symbolize the horizon. In this way, I’m transmitting my thoughts and feelings of hope and peace to everyone affected by all the wars on Earth right now.

7
Leta Minor 

Leta Minor’s “body-positive” illustrations ooze character and strength. The illustrator from Saint Petersburg, Russia, employs the colors of Ukraine and Russia to create an immediate connection to the context, while incorporating the countries’ respective flowers to bring a delicate touch to an otherwise strong message.

Using flowers instead of faces allows me to unify the image that I want to show. The sunflower is a symbol of Ukraine, and daisies are the symbol of Russia. This helps me show the whole country, not just one person. The t-shirt slogans call for an end to the horror that my country is inflicting onto Ukrainian territory.

“No to war” is the slogan that the Russian-speaking community uses to show its discontent and call for the war to end. “Fuck the war!”  was first used by the Russian music duo t.A.T.u. on their T-shirts during a performance on the Jay Leno show on February 25, 2003.

Right now, I’m driven by the desire to pay attention to what is happening in Ukraine. Russia is committing inhumane acts, invading the territory, and killing civilians. My illustrations are a small contribution that I can and will make until the war is over.

 

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