youKrainians ink the fight for their country on their bodies, with artists receiving requests for tattoos of Molotov cocktails, anti-tank missiles and even a type of bread that has become an unlikely symbol of national identity because Russians have trouble pronouncing it.
As people returned to kyiv after Russian troops abandoned their attempts to seize it, tattoo artists noticed a growing demand for art that paid homage to that spring of tragedy and violence, and to the spirit of Ukrainian resistance.
“I wanted to capture this moment,” said Mariika, a tattoo artist who now has an anti-tank hedgehog on her leg and a molotov cocktail on her arm.
She remained in kyiv throughout the war, watching the stories she heard in her youth become a terrifying reality. “I never thought I would experience something like this. My grandmother was a child of war, but her stories seemed so far away. Hiding in the basement from bombs is never something I thought it would happen to me.
For several Saturdays, she has joined a group of tattoo artists gathered in a festive district of kyiv for a day of fundraising in a nightclub, currently out of service because of the war and the curfew.
Other dance floors have been requisitioned as temporary headquarters for volunteers making camouflage nets, organizing relief or preparing molotov cocktails.
Anyone can come forward for a tattoo; the price is all they can afford to give to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. No money changes hands, they just need to show a receipt for their donation.
“At the start of the war, it was impossible to work, there were no customers and no travel. But then people started asking about tattoos, so we organized this event,” said Alexander, a 34-year-old artist with 11 years of experience. “I gathered my friends and every weekend more and more artists participate.”
They have already raised over 100,000 hryvnia (£2,700) for the army and plan to continue as long as there is demand and they have the needles and ink to meet it.
Not all new designs are military-inspired. Some people want to forget the war, with cat tattoos, and others want to mark the moment without direct reference to the war.
“I wanted to do a patriotic tattoo and I wanted to remember that time and the emotions associated with it, but I didn’t want anything aggressive,” said Fedor, a 23-year-old IT manager who got the word. palyanytsia – a traditional bread often eaten on special occasions – tattooed on his arm.
Because Russians have trouble pronouncing it, Ukrainians joke that bread is an unofficial national “password” to catch potential Russian spies. “People are going to ask what that means and I’m going to explain it to them. I want to highlight the Ukrainian identity.
Mariika said some people asked for symbols of their cities. A girl who had recently escaped Russian-controlled Kherson wanted a slice of watermelon her hometown is famous for. The Kyivites asked for the chestnut leaf which is a symbol of the city.
But others pushed into the violence of brutal warfare want more explicit tributes to how their lives have suddenly changed, including images of British Next Generation Light Anti-Tank Weapons (NLAW) and American javelins.
“A man who shot NLAWs wanted a tattoo with a picture of one, a heart and the words ‘NLAW in Love,'” Alexander said. At the start of the war, he was also asked to do tattoos for an entire unit. “Twelve people all wanted the same tattoo on their hands.” It was the trident – the national coat of arms – a silhouette of their group and its name.
“They came to me to do a tattoo at night because at that time the Russians were very close to kyiv and it was very dangerous. One of them was 52 years old.
Civilians are also grappling with the reality of finding themselves on the front lines almost overnight. Nastya, 23, who works at McDonald’s, had an image of a man throwing a molotov cocktail. “For me, it symbolizes the resistance of my country,” she said.
Mariika’s husband Oscar, who left Iceland when they married, has a new tattoo of an AK47 with a sunflower – the national flower – sticking out of it.
It’s partly in tribute to an elderly woman who was filmed squeezing packets of sunflower seeds on Russian soldiers to put in their pockets, claiming the flowers would sprout when killed in action.
“I saw a video about sunflower seeds and thought it was a good representation of the spirit of Ukrainians now,” he said.
Other drawings include the now ubiquitous line from Ukrainian border guards to a Russian ship demanding their surrender, “Russian warship, fuck you,” and an image of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy waving two guns.
Additional reporting by Vera Mironova