Thirty years later, the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown is still haunting. Dozens of people died, thousands have become sick, and thousands more are still likely to be diagnosed with fallout-related cancers. The world’s awareness of the scope of the tragedy is thanks, in part, to the brave efforts of Russian photographer Igor Kostin, who captured some of the first images following the meltdown, and visited the city, documenting the tragedy several times after.
Kostin died last year in a car accident, and to pay tribute, Australian artist Guido van Helten traveled to Chernobyl, was permitted access into reactor No. 5 by the Ukrainian government–a reactor that was only 70% built at the time of the accident–and painted this haunting mural of Kostin, highlighted by CityLab.
“Knowing the horrors of such a place, the area is quite beautiful in its decay,” Helten writes via email. “It is overgrown, peaceful, and silent. There are birds and wildlife, and the day we were there the sun was shining and it was hot. We created this work because of the power of the message it can carry through .”
Mixed-media artist Geo Leros traveled with Helten to document the event in the short video you see here. Helten, his body wrapped in a hazmat suit, works with a singular safety-oriented focus, save for the defiant cigarette hanging from his lips.
“The concept of radiation is a horrifying and mysterious and hidden threat,” Helten writes. “You cannot see it, feel it, smell it, or anything, but it is evident on the Geiger counter as we created this work . . . therefore I did not want to be there long, creating this work in about seven hours all up.”
He’s made what’s said to be the first piece of street art in Chernobyl–a haunting portrait of a portrait, painted inside a poisonous place that most people will never see.