My Pen Is My Kalashnikov

Fighting A War Not With Guns, But With Graphics

March 28, 2024

My Pen Is My Kalashnikov

Ukrainian expat designer Mykola Kovalenko. Photo courtesy

By Aria Novosedlik


It's pretty easy as a graphic designer to feel like the work you do is frivolous. It's also easy to feel like all you are ever asked do is make stuff look pretty. 

However it's not always what you do, but why you do it, that matters. 

Slovak journalist, Jan Kuciak, Mykola Kovalenk

To protest the murder of Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak in 2018, Mykola Kovalenko created the above image and organized an invitational exhibit with entries from all over Europe

With a war of attrition raging on in the Ukraine, the end of which is nowhere in sight after Putin's 're-election', it's no surprise that the Ukrainian art and design communities have found themselves at a standstill. Yet as has been seen in every way possible, the Ukrainian people have not just stood up to the testing of their resolve, but have shown a level of strength and perseverance that no one would have thought possible. 


One of those people is Mykola Kovalenko, who has made a poster a day, every day since February 24, 2022, to protest the futile and barbaric war waged against his country.


Mykola Kovalenko

Kovalenko, a master of minimalism, relies on bold, simple forms to communicate his critique of the Russian invasion and dismemberment of the Ukraine

'My pen is my Kalashnikov', says designer Kovalenko, who now resides in Bratislava, Slovakia. For reference, Kalashnikov is the Russian term for a family of assault rifles. Describing the pen as Kovalenko's preferred weapon is certainly accurate: like a clean, perfectly calculated shot, his work pierces the viewer’s eye with unforgettable impact. 


Shredder, Russians

The message could not be clearer: shred the Russians

Each day since the war began, Kovalenko has used any spare moment he has to create his 'poster a day' project. Designers spend a lot of time conceiving of succinct representations that encapsulate complex concepts – yet all he has to spare is forty minutes or so a day. Sometimes, if you’ll forgive the brutal pun, you do your best work with a gun to your head. With such a sense of urgency, he's able to more sincerely and succinctly communicate the pure desperation that his country is feeling.


war flower

War flower billboard

Kovalenko’s work on a Ukrainian outdoor billboard

We interviewed Mr.Kovalenko after finding his work among other Ukrainian designers and artists trying to send their message to the world. When he was just a schoolboy, his drawing teacher immediately picked up on his talent and instructed his mother to have him study at a children's art school. In his own words, 'that's how it all started'. Naturally, art college followed. 


Shigeo Fukuda, Ovalenko

Left: Shigeo Fukuda. Right: Kovalenko’s homage to Shigeo Fukuda

His influences while at art college included punk post-modernists Neville Brody and David Carson. However, you might not know that by looking at his current work, which recalls that of the great Japanese designer, artist and minimalist master Shigeo Fukuda. In fact, he even honoured Fukuda's work in one of his own posters. Fukuda (1932-2009) was well-known for his post-war pieces, which skilfully employ optical illusions to communicate his anti-war messages.


Shigeo Fukuda

Shigeo Fukuda’s most famous anti-war poster

Kovalenko has won more that 150 international design awards in countries ranging from Germany to China, and regularly serves as a judge for several more. But that's not his focus right now. He'd always wanted to work in other countries and having acquaintances in Bratislava, he decided to check it out. In his words, it's 'comfortable and pleasant', which can't exactly be said about the current state of his hometown in Zaporizhzhia. When asked if he'd ever return to the Ukraine, he hesitantly replies, “Hard to say, but I think it's quite possible”. 

And while in the past he's both won awards and been a juror in Russia, he's now had to cut ties with several of his fellow Russian designers. Many have, unfortunately, sided with Putin since the start of the war. “I have nothing to say to them”, says Kovalenko. 

Kovalenko, protest poster

Kovalenko’s most recognizable protest poster: peace does not come without sacrifice.

His daily posters say more than enough, though. One of his first posters (above) and a personal favourite, 'price of freedom', is a simple line drawing of a hand making the universal peace sign. However, the three fingers that would normally be folded have been severed at the base. It's not particularly gruesome, but the message is painfully clear. Even if this war were to magically and peacefully end, the casualties will never be forgotten. 

objectivications, the Beauty myth

Sexistiky Kix

Sexistiky Kix

Beyond the war – which is hard to even imagine – Kovalenko's stance towards social betterment has been a thread tying much of his work together. With Sexistický Kix, a poster campaign aimed at exposing sexism, Mykola's simple, blunt vector style instills subtle but significant feelings of discomfort. He uses the female figure along with other gender symbols to impart a sense of quiet struggle among the victims of such widely accepted representations. 

On the opposite side of the spectrum, his labels for MARINA wine depict elegant pictograms representing lines from a poem by romantic Slovak poet Andrej Sladkovic. This collaborative project between ELESKO winery and The Love Bank even created a keepsake local, one that Marina and Sladkovic had made their own, where couples could leave their own romantic keepsakes.




With the war grinding on, Mr.Kovalenko has no better weapon than his pen; his Kalashnikov. Design has long been weaponized to create pro-war propaganda. The only way to expose this war for what it truly is – the paranoid machinations of an old, psychopathic narcissist – are through the daily posters and constant reminders by Myloka Kovalenko and his brethren that this must end.

Aria Novosedlik is a Toronto-based designer and writer.