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The 'Ukrainian Banksy' has remained in Kharkiv despite Russian attacks

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The northeastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv has been heavily attacked over the last year. Thousands of residents have fled, but one street artist has remained. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley spoke with the man known as the Ukrainian Banksy.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: I meet Hamlet Zinkivskiy, or Gamlet, as the name is pronounced in Ukrainian, on a windy March day in his native city of Kharkiv. The 36-year-old was born and raised here in Ukraine's second-largest city, known for its heavy industry. Zinkivskiy says life felt stagnant in his drab post-Soviet country. He used to dream of emigrating to the West. Then came the Maidan uprising in Kyiv in 2013 against the corrupt pro-Kremlin president, Viktor Yanukovych.

HAMLET ZINKIVSKIY: But start Maidan, and I think, now I am really interested. And when Yanukovych moved to Russia, I think, yes. And after start the war, now we have a future.

BEARDSLEY: As horrible as it has been, he says this war has also inspired him.

ZINKIVSKIY: For me now, it's a brilliant time, very hard time, but brilliant, amazing time because I feel every day something amazing, something new.

BEARDSLEY: As a young student at Kharkiv art schools, Zinkivskiy dreamed of becoming a painter of traditional religious icons. But 15 years ago, he discovered street art on the internet. He's never looked back. His black-and-white contemporary drawings with captions speckle the city. Zinkivskiy painted 35 last year alone. He walks the streets in search of the perfect place. Oh, we just crossed one of his walks on the sidewalk. I almost stepped on it. OK, so you used the cluster bomb...

ZINKIVSKIY: Yeah. Yeah.

BEARDSLEY: ...Indentations.

ZINKIVSKIY: Because if you didn't think about death or destroyed, it looks so beautiful in asphalt, like a flower.

BEARDSLEY: The occupier brings its own flowers, Zinkivskiy's caption reads. This artist says he was a pacifist until 2014, when Russian President Vladimir Putin started his war in the east and took Crimea. Other things have changed. Zinkivskiy spoke Russian for 35 years, but now only speaks Ukrainian and English. When the war started, he joined a battalion and served for 10 months. Then his commander told him to get back to the streets.

ZINKIVSKIY: I said, no way, for what? It's stupid because city is totally empty. No, Gamlet. People need it. And he was right, really right.

BEARDSLEY: Zinkivskiy says he feels like he's part of the history of his city now. As we walk the streets, air raid sirens go off.

ZINKIVSKIY: For me, it's like a sound of my city. You wake up because bombing center. And you don't know. You work all day or die in this day (laughter). And it's very interesting period for my life.

BEARDSLEY: People often stop Zinkivskiy on the street to tell him how much it means to them he's still here and making art. On a black wrought iron gate is his white drawing of a children's seesaw. The war steals a lot of time and opportunities, it says on one side of the seesaw. On the other, the war gives a lot of time and opportunities.

OLENA OLENYCH: (Non-English language spoken).

ZINKIVSKIY: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Kharkiv resident Olena Olenych is studying the drawing with her husband and child. She agrees.

OLENYCH: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: "This war has stolen a lot from us," she says, "but soon, we will be victorious and free." Zinkivskiy also dreams of a new Ukraine.

ZINKIVSKIY: Without corruptions, without stupid people, and to help to another countries.

BEARDSLEY: Then Hamlet, the Ukrainian Banksy, moves on to create more art. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Kharkiv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.
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