Forward Thinking

Tattoos Try — and Fail — To Reclaim the Swastika

By Teri Zucker

  • Print
  • Share Share

A Swedish punk rocker with a swastika tattoo. / Getty Images

I’ve always wanted to visit Nashville, Tenn. On my recent trip there, I had every bit as much fun as I suspected I would. But I also saw something that made me gasp out loud.

Downtown, I stumbled upon a tattoo shop. Being a person with tattoos (controversially, a Jew with tattoos), I decided to stop in and do some pricing. Perusing the flash art wall, I saw the typical assortment of symbols, animals, sayings, suggestive cartoons, etc. Then a particular design caught my eye: an eagle’s head with a swastika inside it.

I wondered how I could actually be seeing this. I had been enjoying my trip so much, and this was casting a cloud over it. Do people actually come into the shop to get that terrible symbol inked on them? I wanted to go and say something to the shop staff members, who seemed extremely friendly, but since I was more or less a stranger in a strange land I decided it was best to keep mum.

Back home I told several people about my experience, and they were all appalled. After all, even though bigotry and hatred can happen anywhere, they definitely should not be catered to. I “liked” the company’s page on Facebook so that I could post on it to let staff and patrons know how I felt. My feeling — and hope — was that the design was due to ignorance, since the Jewish population in Nashville is not at all like New York City’s.

I didn’t expect to hear anything from the shop, but just knowing I’d put my feelings out there made me feel better. To my surprise, a response appeared on the page a week later. The commenter said that the symbol is Ancient Sanskrit and represents “peace, prosperity and welfare.” The post went on to say that it is a shame that, because of Nazi Germany, racism is what it evokes in the minds of most people in the West.

Also, one of our artists in the shop is Jewish, the commenter noted.

I was stunned to read this response, and it led me to do an online search to see if there are other people holding to this perception of the symbol. I learned that there is a worldwide campaign to “reclaim” the “innocence” of the swastika. The inspiration? A Canadian poet by the name of Patrick Charles Kemball, aka ManWoman.

In 2001, ManWoman wrote a book called “Gentle Swastika.” Not only had the artist, who in 2012 died of cancer, been trying to change the way people see the swastika, but he had more than 200 of them tattooed on his body. I found three favorable online reviews of this book; one reader noted that her Jewish family members always taught her that the swastika was evil, but reading the book has changed her in a way she “can’t even put into words.” She goes on to highly recommend it.

On November 13, 2013, a “Learn To Love the Swastika” event took place in tattoo parlors all over the world. Held to commemorate the first anniversary of ManWoman’s passing, the event involved artists giving away free swastika tattoos in order to spread “cultural awareness.” The Facebook invite page showed an expected attendance of more than 1,600, along with postings of people’s swastika tattoos — some of them variations or expansions on the symbols — plus books about the meaning of the swastika, and praise for ManWoman.

I realize that the meanings of symbols change throughout the years, but to me, the Holocaust has precluded any other association for this symbol, and I wrote as much in reply to the shop’s Facebook post. Personally, I would never have permanently inked on me a symbol that would give a misleading representation. A few years ago I vetoed getting a rainbow tattoo because of the rainbow’s heavy association with the gay and lesbian community, of which I am not a part.

I am sure there are some people who would want to get the swastika to honor its original meaning for religious purposes, but I think they pale in comparison to people who would use this “reclaiming” as an excuse to wear it for far less noble reasons. In my Brooklyn neighborhood, it would horrify me if I suddenly saw people walking around with swastikas inked on them, let alone if I walked into a tattoo shop and saw someone getting a swastika tattoo. The Nashville shop’s commenter had noted that one of the artists is Jewish. It made me cringe to think of a Jew putting this symbol on anyone — particularly another Jew.

People always say that nothing is black and white, but in this case I think the shades of gray just serve to make everything muddy.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: tattoo, swastika, Nazi, Holocaust

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.