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Banksy At War: Why One Of His Combat-Zone Murals Has Become An Official Ukrainian Postal Stamp

There are myriad ways in which the world has marked the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine — vigils, think-tank conferences, Biden’s history-making visit to Kyiv, Vladimir Putin’s petulant cutting off the gas to Poland for that country’s role in delivering arms to the Ukrainian forces.

But none of those events marked the day the invasion began with quite the satiric and yet heartfelt brio of the Ukrainian postal service’s February 24 release of its new stamp bearing a photograph of a Banksy mural done while the artist was in his now well-known Kyiv “residency” late last year. The image Banksy actually painted — or stencil-tagged, if you will — is quite a dynamic one of a small boy in his judo kit throwing a much larger, older man, pictured in situ below.

The mural was done in a bombed-out section of Borodyanka, a small town about thirty kilometers northwest of Kyiv and the scene of ferocious fighting earlier last year as the planned Russian sack of Kyiv was slowly stalled and repulsed. A master at siting his works, Banksy certainly would have known this about Borodyanka before he went.

As we also know, the current president of Russia is an avowed judo hobbyist/practitioner — reportedly, a black belt. Not least, as a metaphor for the progress of Putin’s war in Ukraine, the Borodyanka work is a textbook example of just how much serious study it takes for Banksy works to be effective at the sort of ambush-broadcasting in which artists of the street specialize.

The story of this war is by no means written yet, but the placement of the mural in Borodyanka means that Banksy went to the trouble to find one of the specific topographical points at which the tide of the war was recently turned. The siting is about a use of of the war’s actual narrative. As he does, then he painted a mural there that both renders and expands our notions of the larger conflict at that specific point within it.

The Ukrainian government, in the form of its postal service, clearly thought that the mural was a good use of wall space. The judo boy and its fellow works became well-known in the country, as Banksy’s works mostly do in the countries in which he operates, and from there it was but a simple step for the government and the artist to arrive at some mutually agreeable wider use for the image.

The postal stamp bears a Banksy copyright mark as part of its graphical armor, which points to a more than rudimentary form of cooperation between the artist and the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky, who, it should be recalled, as a former comedian, scriptwriter and hit television showrunner, is no stranger to political satire.

The other legend on the stamp that’s unusual — meaning, not a postal designation of price or origin and not present on the original Banksy mural — is the piquant six-character, two-word rendering, in Cyrillic, of an acronym in the lower left corner of the stamp. Transliterated from the Cyrillic to English characters, it reads PTN PNX. Put as diplomatically as possible, the acronym signifies a rather blunt “go-jump-in-a-lake” style imprecation directed at the invading commander-in-chief, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

Issued on February 24 from the central post office in Kyiv, the stamp was an instant hit, a feel-good nominal purchase for young and old alike, not unlike the “To Hell With Hitler” badges sold in the US during WW II.

It’s part of the equation surrounding the stamp issue that Banksy, the brainy, Bristol-born graffiti/street artist widely thought to be Robin Gunningham, has always been about more or less spectacular art pranks laden with ruthless irony. Although it carried few political overtones other than a sly critique of art world’s occasionally heady finances, there was the highly choreographed 2018 Sotheby’s auction incident in which the artist remotely triggered the shredding of one of his better-known canvases of the girl with the balloon in the moment of its sale at auction for $1.4 million. At the time it was thought by close Banksy-watchers and art critics alike that the somewhat reclusive artist made a minor tradecraft mis-step that evening by insisting on triggering the stunty shredding himself, actually from the auction room, since he was captured on video of the event. Ahoy out there, Robin, good to see you looking in the pink, man!

But as he’s matured in the last years, Banksy/Gunningham has made a point of increasing his international range to ‘perform’ — if you will — his classically hyper-irono murals under cover involve in an overtly, non-ironic political way. Much like an in-demand international DJ, he’s roamed global hotspots and taken them under his wing, so to speak. One of the early tours was a 2005 ‘residency’ in Palestine, where he was naturally drawn to, and aggressively tagged, the Middle East’s latter-day equivalent of the Berlin Wall.

Late last year Banksy began a residency in Ukraine, where he found several sites in Kyiv, Hostomel, Irpin and other locations for murals commenting on the war. He posted a shot of the Borodyanka judo-fighter boy on social media, seeming to confirm his presence in the war.

Taken in the largest sense as a Banksy canvas, the grim wartime Ukrainian city-hellscapes have provided the artist with many opportunities to exercise his relentless sense of satire. By turns angry, wry, bleak, and always political, Banksy/Gunningham doesn’t seem quite finished yet with this conflict zone, and it would be in character for him to return to it.

But students of the man and his work will find something surprising in the Ukrainian work to date: The murals are — for Banksy anyway — surprisingly un-bleak. They’re funny — we can sense the man doing something more supportive of the Ukrainian viewer. In this set of war paintings, we get to see Banksy carefully present some minor, extremely delicate tendrils of hope.

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