FEATURE/Ukrainian showcases Taiwan-Ukraine friendship through street art
Taipei, June 20 (CNA) A street art work depicting two cartoon cats shaking hands appeared on the wall of an abandoned building in Odessa, Ukraine, just 50 meters from the Chinese Consulate-General, at the end of April.
Street art and graffiti are common sights in cities around the world, particularly on abandoned buildings of which there are many more since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February. In this work, one of the two cats on the wall in question is heartwarmingly familiar to Taiwan nationals looking at the picture online.
Both cats are dressed in gowns with similar color pallets and patterns, except the cat on the left is dressed much simpler while the other cat wears a sleeveless vest proudly decorated with the Chinese characters for Taiwan written in calligraphy.
Interested netizens and knowledgeable passersby in Odessa will realize that with its distinguished clothing and facial tattoos, the cat on the right represents the Indigenous Atayal people of Taiwan, while the other feline wears the traditional Ukrainian Vyshyvanka, in colors that mirror the clothing of its companion.
In between them is emblazoned the Ukrainian word "pidtrymka (підтримка)," meaning "support," written in the nation's signature blue.
Man with a plan
"One day, after the war started, I searched to find who was helping Ukraine around the world," the street art's benefactor told CNA in an exclusive interview. "I found Taiwan in the list of helpers. My decision was fast -- Ukraine must respond to such help."
The painting was commissioned by the 30-year-old man who asked to be identified as Evghen.
According to Evghen, he has a degree in chemistry and has worked in the quality control department of a pharmaceutical company for the past five years.
Before Russia invaded, Evghen said he planned to do something different. "Before the war, I had an idea to open a fast food café delivering onigiri (rice balls) but COVID-19 and Putin crapped on my plans," he said.
Evghen went on to say that he decided to commission the painting not only as a gesture of gratitude to Taiwan, but to also send a message to countries who face constant pressure from despotic neighbors to stick together.
"Huge thanks to all Taiwanese who in this hard time pick out a few Taiwan dollars for the people of my country. I hope Ukraine remembers who its real friends and who not," he said.
To give voice to his gratitude, Evghen sought out popular Ukrainian street art group LBWS on Instagram and asked them to create the image using the humorous idea of what he called "Taiwan and Ukraine against evil."
Evghen and LBWS members chose the Atayal people from a shortlist including the nation's Taroko and Saisiyat peoples because of how alike the former's clothing were to Ukraine's own Vyshyvanka.
Evghen told CNA that he had initially wanted LBWS to paint the graphic on the wall of the Chinese consulate, but decided against it after realizing how big a problem it might cause. On April 22, the street art appeared on the wall of an abandoned building 50 meters away from the consulate.
"I think right now you know why I wanted to paint Ukraine-Taiwan," Evghen said, urging Taiwan to "be aware" and "stick together" in the face of Chinese military threat.
The art group behind the brush
LBWS also agreed to an interview with CNA about themselves and their realization of Evghen's idea.
"We are a group of street artists from Odesa, Ukraine," the group's spokesperson said. "Our name is LBWS. We started painting in 2004 at the age of 14."
The group itself identifies as a crew of nonpublic artists whose name is an acronym made up of letters representing each of its members. They are like-minded friends who love art and graduated from illegal graffiti on trains and walls to more artistic products that have taken on a life of their own.
Indeed, their brand can now be found in Greece, Azerbaijan, Germany, Poland and other countries.
"We are a group of artists," the anonymous LBWS spokesperson said. "Usually, our gallery is on the street. Sometimes we sell our works too, like canvases, sticker packs, sculptures."
Unfortunately, the group said that when the war broke out, they were forced to change their creativity and style, leading them to start the "LBWS CATS" series in 2021 as an artistic political movement to address Ukraine's relationship with Russia.
According to LBWS, the movement further evolved after Russia's Feb. 24 invasion into one that aims to boost national morale and civilian spirits, with more than 100 graphics all over Ukraine.
"I am aware, Taiwan citizens in cooperation with overseas Ukrainians have collected tons of humanitarian charity aid and sent it to Ukraine months ago," the spokesperson said of the Ukraine-Taiwan picture "#TaiwanStandWithUkrane did it."
When asked about the inspiration behind choosing cats as the mascot of their movement, the spokesperson simply answered, "That is easy. Ukrainians love cats."
Charity through art and camaraderie
Currently, LBWS has allowed the "Taiwan Stands With Ukraine" nonprofit organization to print the Ukraine-Taiwan cats graphic onto T-shirts for charity purposes.
Tracey Sedinkinas (張芸翠), the leader of the project in Taiwan, said all money made from sales of the T-shirts will go to funding future LBWS projects as well as helping refugees from the Ukrainian city of Mariupol.
She said the picture is a symbolic milestone in the relationship between Taiwan and Ukraine, and almost half the 160 T-shirts printed have been sold.
Sedinkinas also said that the reason behind splitting the profits with Mariupol is a Ukrainian national from the city who is currently in Taiwan.
That unnamed individual started the charity movement after losing contact with both parents soon after the war started and has since assisted over 300 refugees, she noted.
Regrettably, as the war drags on, people will become less willing to make donations even though refugees will continue to need help, said Sedinkinas, a Taiwanese who married to a Lithuanian man. The couple live in Taiwan.
She added that the organization has received multiple pleas from mothers to help them feed their children or get gasoline to fuel their vehicles to escape.
Sedinkinas went on to encourage people to continue their humanitarian efforts. "Even just US$100 (NT$2,974) could change the lives of a refugee family," she said.
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