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.
Teri Zucker is the copy editor of the Forward. She joined the staff in 2004, having served in similar capacities, and written short columns and features, for Soap Opera Digest and for the newsletter division of American Lawyer Media. Her creative nonfiction works have been published on such Web sites as The Poet’s Haven, Absolute Write and Outcry Magazine. A graduate of CUNY’s Brooklyn College, she contributed to the school’s literary magazine, Riverrun. Teri Zucker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.