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    San Clemente street artist Bandit makes mark in war-torn Ukraine
    • October 18, 2023

    Art is a powerful weapon, a way to arm people with hope and inspire the future generation.

    That was street artist Bandit’s mission heading to war-torn areas of Ukraine during a recent 16-day trip, during which the San Clemente native painted 11 murals on bullet-riddled and bombed buildings and structures throughout the region.

    “It is to remind people, to show the people of the Ukraine some of us are still paying attention and you have our sympathy for what you are going through,” said the artist who does not reveal his name due to the secrecy of his work.

    Bandit traveled with San Clemente photographer Tristan George to document the journey in film and video, with plans to release a documentary to show the devastating impacts of war, he said.

    He said he had the idea to travel to the Ukraine shortly after the war started in early 2022, after seeing the cities being destroyed and countless lives lost.

    He met a couple from Ukraine who came to San Clemente shortly after the start of the war, he said, and they connected him with another couple in Ukraine – the husband was high ranked in the ministry of defense for the Ukrainian military, he said.

    That relationship allowed the artist and filmmaker to get through military checkpoints and into hard-to-access places when they arrived; many of the locations are still under strict curfew with air sirens blaring through the night.

    “We worked with the government, in a sense,” Bandit said. “They were super open to it, they were very receptive.”

    As they moved through the country, Bandit left behind his messages of hope through art.

    One scene showed an Ukrainian soldier using the hammer from the Soviet Union emblem to hang the Ukrainian flag, illustrating the country’s independence, he said. Another painting depicted a tug-of-war scene with a Russian and Ukrainian soldier on a large slab of concrete. On an abandoned Russian tank, he created a large handprint in the country’s iconic yellow and blue colors.

    He left behind a bright yellow sunflower on a crumbling building; the silhouette of a couple dancing on a wall in the city of Kharkiv, something the town is known for; and a young child sitting atop a mountain of bullet holes dotting a building clutching a kite in the country’s colors.

    “They understood what we were trying to do, as far as making something bullet-riddled, burned and destroyed into something with hope, peace and color,” Bandit said.

    Painting in such a volatile area was no easy task.

    “It’s nerve wracking. You’re entering areas in current crisis and war,” he said. “We couldn’t walk everywhere we wanted because there’s mines.”

    Bandit’s work can be found throughout his hometown of San Clemente, both in public spaces and inside businesses, but in recent years he has turned his attention to bigger cities and causes he has felt needed attention. His artwork often puts a spotlight on serious issues such as school shootings, the drug epidemic and human trafficking.

    On Avenida Del Mar, a painting he did of a young girl holding a tattered Ukrainian flag, a dove flying above as a symbol of peace, generated a buzz around town shortly after the war started. The piece was later torn down as construction started on a new restaurant.

    George, who grew up in Irvine, said he wanted to be part of the project after being inspired by the many immigrants in his hometown, many parents of friends, who told stories of oppression and even jail time for speaking out in their native countries.

    The photographer said because of curfews, many of the paintings had to be done in daylight. People would pass by at the start of a project and wonder what they were up to with skepticism, George said, but would return with appreciation as the art pieces evolved.

    “I understand you are doing this for us, for the children. They are growing up in a such a hard time, it’s valuable to have them play at a playground and have this positive message,” he recalled one person saying.

    “Being able to look at a building that has a lot of painful memories and blood on it and creating new memories – that was an inspiring thing,” he said.

    One of the most memorable encounters was with a man who told of how he and other civilians held off a Russian convoy outside of a building where Bandit illustrated children painting heartbeat monitor lines in yellow and blue. The man watched 50 of his friends die during that standoff, George said.

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    “He was just very happy that we were doing something to brighten an area that held a lot of pain in his heart,” George said. “I was able to interview him in front of the building, a local priest translating for both of us.”

    Another memorable interview was with a woman who had traveled to see a painting Bandit did on a glass-tile wall dotted with bullet holes. It is the scene of a soldier and a woman sitting on the hands of a broken clock, separated as they reached for one another.

    The woman told George she had stayed to care for the elderly and animals left in a shelter, even as power in her besieged town was cut off. Her husband was called to serve in the army a month before she found out she was pregnant.

    “She had no ability to contact him. (The baby) was born just a few months ago, she hasn’t heard from her husband since the start of the war. There’s no documentation, there was no word if he’s alive,” George said. “She’s still waiting for him to one day return. It brought a lot of magnitude to the piece that Bandit painted on the building, seeing art tell a true story, in a way.”

    A woman named Julia traveled from afar to see a piece set on bullet-dotted glass of a soldier and a woman sitting on the hands of a broken clock, separated as they reached for one another. Julia hasn’t heard from her love, giving birth to their child in the time he has been gone. (Photo courtesy of Tristan George)

    George said a big takeaway from the trip was the willingness of people to share their experience, despite how difficult it was to talk about.

    “We want art to be able to tell not just one story, but countless stories and give the human perspective, outside of politics and opinions – just show that this is real life, this is what people are experiencing,” he said. “Despite whatever side you decide to take, this is reality and art has a way to transverse language.”

    Seeing the struggles the Ukrainians are facing was surreal, Bandit said. “It was eye-opening, as far as going to a country like that and being from our little town in San Clemente.”

    Bandit said he hopes the artwork will tell the Ukrainian people that while others can never understand what they are going through, they have not been forgotten.

    “The artwork is a gift to show you that and to hopefully brighten your day and give you something to look forward to,” Bandit said is his message to the Ukrainian people. “And give you extra juice to keep fighting.”

    ​ Orange County Register