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.
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