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Los Angeles-based muralist Corie Mattie, also known as LA Hope Dealer, stands in front of her "To Ukraine With Love" mural in Los Angeles' Arts District. The piece is a recent collaboration with artist Juliano Trindade and is in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Photo courtesy of Corie Mattie

These SoCal artists see Ukraine war as no time to 'sit on my hands'

Warning: This story contains disturbing imagery.

LOS ANGELES – As the war in Ukraine has grown more dire, Southern California-based artists Corie Mattie and Taras Bohonok have turned to art to rally support for Ukraine.

In Santa Ana, Taras Bohonok has been keeping tabs on the events unfolding in Ukraine following Russia's invasion in late February. A painter with work currently on view at Las Laguna Art Gallery in Laguna Beach, Bohonok was born in Ukraine and still has a lot of family in the country. He made sure to connect with relatives during this time.

"I felt like this wasn't the time to sit on my hands," Bohonok said. "If I didn't get up and do something to the best of my abilities, I might not have a chance later and I wouldn't be able to live with myself."

Two weeks ago, Bohonok turned up at the "Stand For Ukraine" rally in Westwood with his art. He made a large sign with a vampiric caricature of Putin that played off a piece he displayed in San Francisco during Ukraine's 2014 revolution. He also brought some of his paintings that he would raffle off to attendees while collecting donations for United Help Ukraine.

Ukrainian-born artist Taras Bohonok holds up a large sign featuring a caricature of Putin at the Stand for Ukraine rally on Feb. 20 in Westwood, California. Apart from simply showing up to the rally, Bohonok raffled his paintings to collect donations for United Help Ukraine. Photo courtesy of Taras Bohonok

In times of crisis, art can take on various roles. As the conflict in Ukraine has intensified, art has become a way for people to voice their opinions online, such as the resurgence of Shepard Fairey's "Make Art, Not War" print, now seen in yellow and blue, the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

"Art should do good. Otherwise, it just becomes decoration," Bohonok said. It can document history or prompt people to think about events, he added.

Art can also bring joy to people "who are suffering in pain," he said. That's something Bohonok knows from his experiences with painting portraits of people's deceased pets.

Then there's the monetary relief that art can bring.

"I think art should finance good deeds," Bohonok said. In this respect, his watercolors, which weren't inherently political, were doing just that. He didn't require people to make a donation to enter the raffle for his artwork at the protest, but at least 50 did. Others contributed donations without participating.

In the process, Bohonok was able to connect with other protestors, including people from Russia and Belarus. In fact, a Russian man held Bohonok's protest sign while the artist was working the booth. "It was touching," he said.

Across the world, artists have been leveraging their work to help raise funds for aid to Ukraine, from an NFT sale led by Pussy Riot's Nadezhda Tolokonnikova to L.A.-based designer Vanessa Dahbour and performance artist Lara Salmon's "A T-Shirt For Ukraine" project.

If you venture into the Arts District, you can even make a donation by pointing your smart phone at a new mural. Recently, Corie Mattie, otherwise known as LA Hope Dealer, has been adding QR codes to her eye-catching murals. Open the camera on your phone, focus on the code and it will direct you to a site where you can make a donation or find more information related to the issue depicted in the piece. If you do this while viewing "To Ukraine With Love," her recent collaboration with artist Juliano Trindade, you might visit the National Bank of Ukraine website.

L.A.-based artist Corie Mattie paints "To Ukraine With Love" mural in Los Angeles' Arts District. Photo courtesy of Corie Mattie

"I knew that I wanted to give back to Ukraine," Mattie said, as she stood in front of the mural on Traction Street. "There's a lot of foot traffic over here."

Mattie, who gained recognition back in 2020 for street art that reflected the COVID-19 pandemic, had been working on a mural down on Melrose Avenue when she noticed that artists from Ukraine were reaching out for help.

"Being in the intersection between art and activism, I knew that I had to do something," she said.

Work on the mural began on a community wall, not too far from Arts District Brewing, one afternoon and was completed the following day. Mattie brought in Trindade, who is better known as a tattoo artist and has inked Mattie's own hand.

"If I was going to trust anyone, it was going to be him," she said, adding that the artist's style "looks like it would be in a history book," a perfect fit for the project.

"To Ukraine With Love" depicts doves flying while pulling Putin's severed head, the strings connecting them to his skin, pulling the Russian president's face into a grimace. "I know that it's a little grotesque, but he is too," Mattie said.

"It doesn't have to stand for him physically being beheaded. It's more like taking away his power or his ego and the doves obviously represent hope and peace," she added. "It was almost like banding together with the rest of the world and Ukraine, we can take him down."

Coincidentally, a golden trumpet tree stands across from it on the sidewalk, its current blooms providing a frame that's remarkably similar to the yellow of the Ukrainian flag.

The striking image has attracted passers-by and prompted some interesting reactions too. Mattie said that she overheard someone ask, "Is that Putin's head?" She noted that the image is different from the work she's known for.

"I'm pretty positive and don't really have violent type of things on here," she says, "but, for this one, I think it was necessary."

"I'm hoping it gets people to think or act or even shift their perspective on what's going on," she said.

This report originally appeared on KCET's "Artbound."

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