Ukrainian street artist Gamlet “under order” to paint Kharkiv

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Kharkiv (Ukraine) (AFP) – A black bulletproof vest with a Ukrainian military crest, a tourniquet and two markers make up street artist Gamlet Zinkivsky’s unpretentious work gear.

The 35-year-old Ukrainian stayed in his hometown of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, to paint its walls even amid the destruction of the Russian invasion.

Recognized internationally with exhibitions and paintings from Lima to London, Gamlet put aside his globetrotting success and now uses his talent to support the home front during the war.

“If I move, I can make my career somewhere abroad. But it will only be comfort. In Ukraine, I have the feeling of building the country,” he said.

“The whole city is my home, the whole city (is) my gallery,” added the bald artist, with four shiny silver rings on his left hand.

He writes the words “hellish hospitality” on the latest addition to his Kharkiv portfolio, a combination of Molotov cocktails and a gas can fired into a city center battered by Russian artillery fire.

“You have to paint”

At the start of the war, Gamlet spent a night in a Kharkiv metro station and 10 days with his parents before moving with relatives to Ivano-Frankivsk in relatively unspoilt western Ukraine.

He spent two months there raising money for humanitarian aid and the Ukrainian military, saying he had sold a painting for two night vision devices.

Then came a phone call from the Khartia battalion commander, whose badge he proudly wears on his jacket. Each painting is signed with his name.

“You stay too long in Ivano-Frankivsk. We need you here (in Kharkiv) – you have to paint,” the commander told him.

Internationally recognized with paintings in Lima and London, Gamlet set aside his globetrotting success Dimitar DILKOFFAFP

Gamlet thinks that working in the streets, where he can paint when and where he wants, is more important for public morale than making himself known in galleries.

“I see people smiling and happy because they see a destroyed building that they loved but smile when they see paint,” he explained.

Gamlet also sees his work as increased access to art, which he values ​​above simply making money selling images.

“Street art is the story of people who have never been to (an) exhibition or who do not go to museums, but they know my work in the street.”

At the start of the war, Gamlet spent a night in a Kharkiv metro station
At the start of the war, Gamlet spent a night in a Kharkiv metro station Dimitar DILKOFFAFP

Gamlet hopes his works, painted on wood covering the windows and exteriors of damaged buildings, will be donated to a future war museum or sold for a good cause.

Only one of the eight paintings he completed in the eastern town of Izyum survived battles with Russian forces in recent weeks, he added, while other works were lost in Berdyansk and Mariupol.

But he says he doesn’t see his art as a weapon against Russia.

“What I do helps real armed fighters defend this country. This country, apart from people and cities, has artists, musicians and a culture that they love. It inspires them (soldiers) to fight and to defend themselves.”

Go against the law

This is the second time that Gamlet has stayed in Kharkiv for political reasons.

He was ready to move to Paris in 2013 before the pro-Western Maidan Revolution toppled pro-Russian Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych in 2014.

It turned out to be a defining moment. “In 2014, I started painting with a powerful new spirit. I understood that I was Ukrainian,” he said.

Gamlet started painting the walls of Kharkiv when he was 17 – and his artistic pursuits got him into numerous run-ins with the law.

He insists his art is not a weapon against Russia
He insists his art is not a weapon against Russia Dimitar DILKOFFAFP

He said he would spend as much money on “bribery” to get out of police custody as he did on painting.

After yet another arrest, Gamlet decided to challenge the officers.

“I said to them, ‘What are you doing? You have nothing else to do? Crimea has been annexed and you have found (a) terrorist like me.’ Then they stopped bothering,” he recalls.

Since then, he says he rejected an offer from the city to become its official painter in order to remain independent.

Gamlet studied art at university and art school for eight years. But he decided to do away with colors 12 years ago, preferring the minimalism of black and white in his work.

“I don’t want to paint beautiful pictures, but great ideas,” he explained.

“In the world, everything is smeared and it is difficult to understand whether it is good or bad. In painting, I can do it in black and white.”

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