Italian street artist's selfie with Putin prompts calls for EU sanctions

Italian street artist's selfie with Putin prompts calls for EU sanctions
Italian graffiti artist Jorit took part in Russia's World Youth Festival 2024 in Sochi last week, where he joined President Vladimir Putin on stage for a picture. / bne IntelliNews
By Marco Cacciati March 11, 2024

Italian renowned graffiti artist Jorit sparked uproar last week after appearing at the self-anointed largest global youth event, the World Youth Festival 2024 in Sochi, Russia. Flanked by a motley crew of more or less famous personalities, propagandists and Kremlin acolytes, including award-winning actress Ornella Muti, the 33-year-old street artist hailing from Naples – whose real name is Ciro Cerullo – courted President Vladimir Putin on March 6, pleading for a selfie with him. 

“I want to take a picture with you to show you are human like everybody and the propaganda they spread all over is not true, that we are all part of the human tribe,” Jorit said in front of a packed auditorium, in awe of the guest of honour.

“I hope you won’t pinch me to make sure I’m real,” Putin quipped back, before allowing the artist to join him on stage for the coveted shot.

Jorit’s gesture faced criticism from many fans and elicited fierce condemnation from a number of Italian politicians, such as centrist Carlo Calenda, branding him “a useful idiot”, and Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, who decried the stunt as “KGB-style propaganda.”

Still, Jorit’s rendezvous with Putin did not happen out of the blue. In fact, the artist’s infatuation with the Russian leader can be traced back to the beginning of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. In March 2022, he painted a mural in Naples depicting celebrated novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky to protest the West’s “cancel culture” purportedly targeting all things Russian. This earned him a mention from Putin himself, who publicly hailed him as a bearer of the “culture that unites us all.”

In July 2023, Jorit defiantly travelled to the war-ravaged Ukrainian city of Mariupol – which fell to Russian forces a year earlier after a brutal battle and a prolonged siege – to adorn a wrecked apartment block with a mural portraying a young girl whose eyes sported the Donetsk People’s Republic flag colours, behind a falling bomb with the word “Nato”.

“They lied to us about Vietnam, they lied to us about Afghanistan, they lied to us about Iraq, and now I have proof: they are also lying to us about Donbas,” Jorit said on Instagram, responding to mounting attacks.

Adding to controversy, social media users quickly noted a striking resemblance between Jorit’s mural and a portrait taken in 2018 by Australian photographer Helen Whittle, featured on a cover of the photography magazine Capture. Whittle, expressing her dismay, declared, "I was not contacted by the artist and do not give permission for this image to be used. My thoughts and opinions are in no way aligned with those of the artist involved."

Jorit later admitted to taking inspiration from the picture, which he claimed to have found randomly on Google.

In the wake of the latest scandal, Italian outlet Linkiesta revealed on March 9 that the Neapolitan painter was paid €90,000 for his work in Mariupol, plus another similar fee for a new mural to be painted in Sochi during the youth summit.

According to the documents reviewed by the publication, the street artist and his crew were indirectly compensated by the Kremlin through a consortium of Saint Petersburg-based companies, tasked by the Ministry of Construction and the Ministry of Transport to reconstruct the razed Ukrainian city and showcase it as an example of innovation, efficiency and freedom.

The contracts cited by Linkiesta also detail the materials purchased for the creation of the mural (180 cans of paint, scaffolding and various equipment), and indicate that the Mariupol’s painting would be the first of ten works to be completed by Jorit in Russia and occupied Ukrainian territories.

Furthermore, the artist’s encounter with Putin would be anything but spontaneous, having been carefully staged by the Russian embassy in Rome, which reportedly handpicked Jorit to curry favour with the Italian youth and push destabilising narratives ahead of the upcoming EU elections.

Reacting to the backlash, Jorit argued on Instagram that “the photos of (Prime Minister Giorgia) Meloni kissing Biden or Netanyahu should cause more discussion than mine with Putin."

"The recent visit to Russia is consistent with the path of artistic militancy that I have been pursuing for years and, like the previous ones, aims to spread a message of peace," he continued.

Last week, European Parliament Vice-President Pina Picierno floated the idea of imposing EU restrictions against the artist.

The move would be a first for the bloc, as no European citizen has ever been sanctioned in connection with the war. However, according to Miguel Mota Delgado, a law researcher at Florence’s European University Institute, “the sanctioning of EU citizens is not prohibited by the text of the relevant provisions of EU law, and in the context of the response to the invasion of Ukraine, it is even expressly foreseen.” This could mirror the case of British propagandist Graham Phillips, who was hit with punitive measures by the UK government in 2022 due to his activities in the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine.

​​"Since 2020, the European Parliament has established two special commissions on foreign interference in which Russian activities have been investigated and recognised, often based on the financing of influencers and well-known figures in Europe to spread the Kremlin's fake news,” said Picierno, as quoted by Italian news agency Ansa.

"The request to sanction Jorit has nothing to do with a witch hunt, but concerns the evidence that Ciro Cerullo's professional endeavours are at the service of the Kremlin and its propaganda.”

Meanwhile, Italian President Sergio Mattarella released a statement on March 8 seemingly addressing the controversy: “Dictatorships try in every way to promote a state art and culture, nothing more than a bogus totalitarian art and culture, which rewards regime’s advocates and punishes and represses authentic artists.”