Outrage at pro-Kremlin mural painted in Mariupol by Italian street artist Jorit

The artist is also accused of using Australian photographer Helen Whittle’s photo of her daughter as a model without permission.

On 11 July 2023, Italian street artist Jorit — real name Ciro Cerullo — announced on his Instagram profile that he had completed a mural on a bombed-out building in Mariupol, the Ukrainian city occupied by the Russian army.

The work portrays a little girl with the colours of the flag of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic in her eyes. Behind her, bombs with the word ‘NATO’ are falling. An anti-fascist symbol with the characteristic black and red flags also appears at the bottom left of the mural.

Jorit wrote that “the resistance we should have supported belongs to the people of the Donbas, who have been fighting for eight years to free themselves” from the “no longer democratic Kiev regime”.

In a nutshell, the mural and its message slavishly repeat the most banal Kremlin’s talking points, which Andrea Braschayko recently debunked on Valigia Blu.

According to Jorit himself, his presence in Mariupol is linked to a “street art festival” — Urban Morphogenesis — held every year in Russia (in 2022, Jorit painted Julian Assange’s face in Moscow). Jorit said that he had asked to go to Donbass, where he had “the idea to paint the mural”. However, he explained that he was not “commissioned” to paint it and that nobody paid him.

Of course, this is not the first time that Jorit has expressed positions in line with those of a certain section of the Italian tankie left. But doing so in an Italian TV studio is one thing; doing so in one of the Ukrainian cities most tormented by Russian military aggression, with the apparent approval of the occupying forces, is quite another.

While there are those who have defended the street artist and thanked him for his ‘courage’, such as former M5S MP Alessandro Di Battista or journalist Luca Telese, many people on social media have pointed out the absolute inappropriateness of painting such a mural in such a situation.

First of all, there is an undeniable fact: from 24 February 2022 until today, the bombs that have fallen on the cities are certainly not ‘NATO’ bombs, but Russian ones.

Secondly, before the full-scale Russian invasion there was a mural dedicated to a Ukrainian girl from Mariupol, Milana Abdurashytova.

In January 2015, she was hit by a missile strike launched by pro-Russian separatist forces, and she lost her mother and a leg. Three years later, to commemorate Milana Abdurashytova’s story, street artist Sasha Korban dedicated a mural to her on the facade of a building on Prospekt Myru.

But after the occupation, the Russians covered it up. For the Ukrainian — and the legitimate administration of Mariupol — the occupiers are “trying to erase the 2015 tragedy from the memory of the city’s residents”.

On 15 July 2023, another controversial issue arose: the identity of the little girl painted by Jorit.

In an interview with Giornale Radio, the Italian street artist explained that he had painted “a living little girl from Donbass who spent her first years in Mariupol surrounded by war”. He hoped that “this little girl will soon be able to see her living portrait”. However, he did not give her name or any other details to make her recognisable.

On Twitter, a number of users pointed out the striking resemblance to a photograph that appeared on the 2018 cover of the Australian photography magazine Capture.

The author is photographer Helen Whittle and the subject is her daughter. In the caption of the photo, Whittle explains that the child was sulking because she had not found any milk in the fridge.

In a story posted on Instagram, on the afternoon of 15 July, Jorit rejected the copying theory by pointing to a photo of another little girl named “Nastya”, which was displayed on the streets of Moscow alongside those of “other children from Donbas” and “their stories that no one ever wanted to tell”.

Later, in another story, he admitted that he had come across the photo by searching for ‘pigtails’ on Google and that he had redrawn ‘the shirt and the pigtails, adapting them to the shapes and lights of the face’, as ‘Nastya’ was unfortunately ‘a bit bald’.

But Whittle has no doubt: her photo has been used without her permission.

In a short statement released via social media, Whittle said she had “not been contacted by the artist” and had “not given permission for the image to be used”. She also clarified that “my thoughts and opinions have nothing to do with those of the artist”.

Speaking to Italian website Fanpage, Whittle was even harsher: “It seems he finds inspiration by plagiarising images he finds on the internet. It was upsetting and painful for me to see my image copied and used in this way”. The photographer also announced that she was consulting her lawyers “on what to do”.

So one of Italy’s most famous street artists has lent himself to creating a work of revisionist propaganda in the territories occupied by the invading forces, while the war is still going on.

And in doing so, as Whittle denounced, he also distorted the image of a little girl who had absolutely nothing to do with the war.

(Translated from Italian by Matteo Pascoletti)