Wartime tattoo studio – ”I think that they give power”

If you search for #bunkertattoos🇺🇦 on Instagram four pictures from Mary Tereshchenko pop up. A ramen bowl, a lotus flower and two texts telling the Russian military to “go fuck yourself” have become permanent memories of the war. Lundagård spoke to the Kyiv-based tattoo artist over the phone.

The slogan ”russian warship go fuck yourself”
shortened to ”RWSFYS”.
Photo: Mary Tereshchenko

“We have lot of phrases like this, рускій воєнний корабль іді нахуй, it means ‘russian warship go fuck yourself’, it is very emotional, and a lot of people want to put it on their skin for the rest of their life.”

It has been almost two weeks since the Russian military invaded Ukraine. Mary Tereshchenko, a tattoo artist based in Kyiv, and her fiancé decided to flee from their apartment. They moved into the basement of a restaurant that the fiancé runs. Since it’s underground it felt safer. “I didn’t sleep in my apartment from the start of this war, I didn’t sleep in the bed at all. That’s why I feel like shit,” Mary Tereshchenko tells Lundagård.

Since then, they’ve used the space as a shelter for people in need and as the base of a supply chain where they give food, medicine, and other necessities to people still in, or on their way to leave, Kyiv. They try to also help feed the pets of those who have already left their homes. “We have a lot of people who want to help and a lot of people who need help, so we are the chain, we connect them with each other,” says Mary Tereshchenko.

She started making the “bunker tattoos” as a way of repaying those who assist her and her fiancé in the shelter. “I just went to my studio, took all my stuff for tattoos, and I started to make tattoos for our team. I realize that these people all work for free now because they are all volunteers. I thought that tattoos would be nice gifts for them because they work so hard, they spend all day and sometimes all night in the kitchens and they need something from this, not just ‘okay, I’m nice person’.”

Mary Tereshchenko mentions that she felt nervous and a little scared while making the first tattoo down in the basement. By then she had not tattooed for a couple of weeks. “It was very scary and not my best. But it’s okay, there’s a story behind them.”

A lotus flower done by Mary Tershchenko in the
basement. Photo: Mary Tereshchenko

Do you see the tattoos as some type of protest?

“No, it is not a protest. I think that they give power to other people. We believe that we will win this war and so it is not like a protest. This phrase [рускій воєнний корабль іді нахуй, editor’s note] is not very good for us, but we are very angry, so maybe it’s a kind of protest against the war,” she continues: “I feel that I am glad that I can do this for them. And I can do my best. I like these people and I’ve spent almost all the time for the last two weeks with them, they are all good and they are all talented.”

Since Mary Tereshchenko started posting on Instagram about her “bunker tattoos” she has gotten requests from people in other parts of Kyiv who also wish to get a tattoo. But the basement is dark, cold, and dusty, she therefor decided to only give tattoos to the people who volunteer at the restaurant. “I don’t know why they want to get out of their houses, I don’t understand because I don’t feel safe at all on the street.”

Mary Tershchenko’s improvised tattoo
station. Photo: Mary Tereshchenko

The only time she has left the restaurant basement was when she went to her tattoo studio to pick up her equipment. She was surprised by the view that met her outside. “When you sit here 24 hours, all day, your brain starts to make very bad pictures in your mind. You know, like a lot of dead people outside, but it’s not like that. I came to my studio and it’s in this really nice hipster district and there were people who just stayed like always.”

Despite the apparent normalcy she fears that this soon won’t be the case: “Kyiv is okay now, but I think in like a few days it will be very very bad here.”

Some of Mary Tereshchenko’s friend have chosen to leave their homes and escape Kyiv. She tells Lundagård that one of them wrote to her saying that they felt guilty about seeking safety elsewhere. “I’m happy that she stays in the safe place. There’s no need to stay for people who are not able to [fight or assist in other ways, editor’s note], it just makes it harder for us. But it is helpful when she writes me, and I understand that she cares for me.”

Mary Tereshchenko feels unsure about the future. She hopes that the war will be over soon but is worried that it will continue for several years.

Do you think that you will stay in Kyiv if the war continues?

“Yes, I have 120 plants! I need to water them!” Mary Teershchenko laughs and makes sure to mention that she is joking but adds that she is starting to consider if she should go and water the plants in Kyivs botanical garden. “I like plants very very much and I just wrote my friend who work there. I asked him if there is someone who can water all these plants. If there is no one who can take care of them, I’ll go there and take care of them!”

Tattoo with рускій воєнний корабль іді нахуй (russian warship go fuck yourself)
Photo: Mary Tereshchenko