KHARKIV, Ukraine -- On a street in the middle of hard-hit Kharkiv, Hamlet Zinkivskiy stops and stares at a series of shattered windows that resembled a mosaic, its shards glinting in the sun.
"If you don't think about the death and destruction, it looks beautiful," said Zinkivskiy, a street artist who was born in Ukraine's second-largest city and, like others here, has watched and endured as it has been battered by Russian bombs and rockets.
Long before the large-scale Russian invasion began in February, the shaven-headed, chain-smoking 35-year-old became known in Ukraine and beyond for his spare, sometimes brooding black-and-white murals that changed the face of Kharkiv and became emblems of a new generation trying to break away from the city's stagnant post-Soviet identity.
Zinkivskiy's beloved hometown, located just about 30 kilometers from the Russian border, has been hit hard since the invasion began. On its first day, February 24, Russian troops reached the city's northern suburbs, putting its future in question.
Like many residents of Ukrainian cities under attack, Zinkivskiy sought refuge that evening on a subway platform beneath the streets. "The night at the metro station...was the worst experience of my life," he recalled. "Total fear, total panic, unreal cold."
Kharkiv has been through a lot since then but has not fallen. In mid-May, Russian units were pushed out of its immediate surroundings, and in mid-September Ukrainian forces recaptured almost all the Kharkiv region territory that the Russians had overrun, dealing Moscow a major blow in a lightning counteroffensive that surprised most observers and many of the city's residents.
Meanwhile, Zinkivskiy's life has turned upside-down. He joined the volunteer military battalion Khartia and set himself to, as he put it, "making the most of every minute to destroy Russia and create the Ukraine of the future."
Zinkivskiy, who is now a regular visitor of a shooting range and carries two knives with him, says he will be ready to fight when it is needed. For now, he says, his commander asked him to do what he does best: paint whatever he wants, wherever he wants, to lift the spirits of those who defend the city.
"I've never lived so much," reads the inscription on one of his recent works -- though the stark depiction of an empty park bench and child's swing seems to convey a dark message about the departed.
As of September 29, a total of 1,277 civilians had been killed and 2,348 wounded as a result of Russia's actions, according to Oleh Synyehubov, governor and head of the Kharkiv regional military administration.
Until recently, Kharkiv had been bombarded frequently, and strikes on its infrastructure have not stopped despite the Russian retreat from the region.
"At some point I stopped following the news about successive missile attacks," Zinkivskiy said. "I wake up, I am happy to be alive, and I go on with my work."
He filled some of the marks left by cluster munitions on the streets with white paint, revealing that their form resembles flowers. "They were not greeted with flowers -- so they gave us theirs," he said -- a reference to the Kremlin's misguided expectation that many Ukrainians would welcome the invading Russian forces with open arms.
For Putin's Russia, bent on subjugating Ukraine, Kharkiv -- a largely Russian-speaking city so close to the border -- is a prize perhaps second only to Kyiv. But both cities have escaped Moscow's clutches, an outcome few expected when the rockets began to rain down and Russian forces flooded across the frontier in February.
As the war grinds on more than seven months later, the streets of the city center -- where Zinkivskiy has painted dozens of works over more than a decade -- are full of badly damaged buildings with broken windows and walls turned black from smoke. Many of them are now vacant, their entrances boarded up with plywood panels.
On the panels protecting the entrance to the city-council building, Zinkivskiy painted a huge gasoline canister, several Molotov cocktails, and the words "Hellish hospitality."
On another entranceway he painted bunches of keys and wrote, "The keys are missing their doors."
Behind the city's doors, many of the people are missing: Some are dead, and roughly half of Kharkiv's population of 1.4 million has left because of the war.
Most of Zinkivskiy's friends have left the city and many won't come back soon, he says -- but he has new acquaintances now, soldiers and volunteers.
The artist is outspoken about the war and gives no quarter to Russia or to those who are willing to accept a compromise with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But his works remain skeptical and ambivalent, as they were before the war.
"War steals a lot of time and opportunities. War gives a lot of time and opportunities," reads the inscription on one of his recent works, depicting a seesaw that resembles a scale.
Zinkivskiy says he never thought he would spend most of his time raising and managing money for military trucks and night-vision goggles -- things he does now on the top of painting.
He would like to be with his wife to celebrate their first wedding anniversary -- they spent only four months of this year together because of war -- but she is in Austria and he cannot imagine being outside of Ukraine.
Wandering through the streets of Kharkiv, Zinkivskiy recalls that when he was 17, he read that real art is only possible in times of cataclysms, like war and revolution. "I almost burst into tears -- I thought this means that there's no point in becoming an artist in Ukraine because nothing is ever going on here," he said.
A year later, in 2004, the Orange Revolution began -- huge protests that tossed out the old guard, overturning an election result demonstrators said was reached through widespread fraud.
At that point, Zinkivskiy said with a laugh, "I thought, 'The prospects are not that bad.'"