Seeing Russian tanks near his hometown was dreadful. So, he started creating anti-war posters.
Mykola Kovalenko is a world-renowned graphic designer. Originally from Ukraine, he is currently based in Bratislava. Although not living in his home country anymore, the war events have hit him hard. So, he decided to turn his resistance into creation of anti-war posters. With each new day of war, a new unique poster is added to the series. The series will keep growing until peace is restored in Ukraine. We sat down with Mykola to talk about the inspiration behind his work.
Your art has been seen by audiences all over the world. Which exhibition do you regard as the most significant?
I was really delighted by the exhibition in Japan. Even more because it happened when my career was just starting out. Being shortlisted by an international design festival is more valuable to me than gold medals and awards from domestic and local contests. I am also excited about the recently launched digital exhibition of my anti-war posters. The posters have been digitalized into NFTs and can now be purchased to benefit a charity that helps the war victims.
You are a winner of multiple awards. Which hold the most value for you?
Back in socialism there was no internet, and we couldn’t compare ourselves with any foreign designers. Taking part in competitions with a panel of experts was a rare opportunity to receive genuine feedback. Sometimes I would get my hands on western design publications and these also inspired my ambition to create high-level global design. Local recognition is not enough for me anymore. In this regard, attending competitions was helpful. Initially my ambition was to create the best possible work, also with the vision of receiving awards. The awards served as a legitimate confirmation that I had what it took to succeed internationally. Looking back, however, the awards themselves are not that important to me.
Let’s go back to your beginnings. When did you discover your gift for visual arts? And how did Mykola Kovalenko become the world-renowned designer, Mykola Kovalenko?
When I was in elementary school, my arts teacher called my mother and told her that „she has to enroll the boy into arts school “. So, my mom took my hand and that is exactly what she did. Later I continued at the Donbas School of Visual arts in Donetsk. And then the State Institute of Applied Art and Design in Kyiv. I was no different from other students, we shared the same interests, went out together and so on. I did not really have more talent than them. I think it was my perfectionism and determination that got me where I am now. I once did and internship with a design company and they sent me home — telling me they saw no potential in me. I remember that it upset me but also motivated me to try harder.
My biggest strength is the ability to observe the world around, appreciate its visual and design qualities and then try and create something of similar quality. In other words, when I see a beautifully designed car, it inspires me to create a design masterpiece in my own field.
Although you currently live in Slovakia, you are a native of Ukraine. Why did you decide to leave?
My priority was to have a stable and peaceful life that would allow me to be creative. But there were too many aspects of life in Ukraine that prevented me from finding much needed inner peace. A Slovak friend recommended me Bratislava and I liked it straight away. I like the disposition of Slovak people. I considered nearby countries too, but Slovakia won. The proximity of our languages was a factor in my decision as well.
Your country is at war. How did the artist in you react to the news of invasion?
When I saw the news on February 24, I was in shock. I didn’t understand how anything like that could even happen. And so, I started creating posters. I have nothing else to say, for me it’s plain and simple: I hate Putin and the Russian regime. Even more so because I was born in Zaporozhye — the part of country currently occupied by Russians. It’s a horrible thing to see a tank with a Russian flag in a Ukrainian field, so close to where I used to live. Perhaps that’s also why my work often features flags. To me they represent a regime that I despise — the Putin Russia, not Russians themselves.
The war has been going on for 5 months. How do you come up with ever new poster ideas?
The posters reflect current war events and my personal perspective. But more than anything they represent my hatred towards Putin and the Russian military. I want the war to stop.
Do any of the posters stand out to you? Perhaps because of an event they depict or a technique you used?
Currently it’s a poster that shows HIMARS, a rocket system that makes Ukrainian defense forces more effective. Also, a poster that revolves around a flower shaped rocket, captioned „I’m from Russia “. Or another one that portrays a Russian soldier as a stick figure stealing the yellow part of the Ukrainian flag. The yellow color represents our fields. Russian looting and plundering that Ukraine has been subjected to is a serious issue that unfortunately gets overlooked. And finally, it’s a poster captioned in Cyrillic where a simple swap of one letter turns the word fascism into rashism, a Russian style fascism.
If you would like to support Mykola’s anti-occupation protest and help victims of Russian aggression, you can do so by purchasing Mykola’s posters in the form of NFTs (non-fungible tokens) at OpenSea. Eighty percent of the overall proceeds will go towards helping war affected Ukrainians.