Distressed by the growing tide of swastika graffiti across Berlin, artist Ibo Omari (below) has taken on the mission of painting them over.
Omari was originally inspired by a man who walked into his graffiti collective’s store in 2015, asking for spray paint to cover a swastika painted on a nearby playground. Instead, Omari insisted on painting it over himself, turning it into a playful mosquito. When he heard about swastikas painted on a neighborhood skatepark a few weeks later, he decided he had to do something larger. So, together with the eleven other members of his graffiti collective, Omari has started a city-wide initiative to transform these hate symbols into something beautiful.
Omari’s initiative is called Paintback, and it’s spread to other German cities because of its presence on social media. The artists have turned swastikas into bunnies, Rubix cubes, dancers, and even Sudoku puzzles. And not only is Omari heading that initiative, he’s also teaching amateur street artists how to DIY their own swastika coverings through his NGO “Die kulturellen Erben e.V.” (“The Cultural Heritage”).
The initiative, which gets German and immigrant teens to positively express their emotions through mediums like hip-hop and street art, was a perfect combination with the Paintback initiative, as Omari aims to get the teens thinking about social responsibilities. “It was important to spur young people into action and to encourage them to take responsibility so they don’t just ignorantly walk past such symbols of hatred,” Omari told Reuters. Klemens Reichelt, a 17-year-old member of “The Cultural Heritage,” told The Verge, “I like it because I think swastikas don’t belong in Berlin. It’s a city open to the world and I want to defend that.”
The project is personal to Omari. As the child of refugees who fled Beirut during the 1970s’ civil war, he’s disturbed by his country’s movement back towards the far right. “I grew up in Berlin, and in the last 20 years there has been a lot of change,” he told reporters. “But now when all this right wing hate comes back, I feel like nothing has changed.” He believes that it’s important for people to “nail your colors to the mast” and let others know that hate will not be tolerated.
The swastikas aren’t the only evidence of Germany’s move to the right. As in many other European countries, Germany has seen a strengthened far-right movement since 2015, fed by suspicion of the refugees let into the country. This fall, the country elected 92 lawmakers from the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, a German-nationalist party which opposes immigration and the EU. In doing so, they became the first far-right party to be elected to Germany’s parliament in over 50 years.
And, far from Germany’s borders, other countries are seeing an increase in Neo-Nazi vandalism. Since last year’s American presidential election, instances of swastika graffiti and defacement of Jewish-owned buildings have gone up in the United States. The rise in Neo-Nazi violence has been particularly profound after last summer’s Charlottesville protests, when President Trump said that there were “some very fine people” among the armed white-supremacists in attendance.
But some people in America are fighting back with art. Back in February, New York governor Andrew Cuomo shared a photo of a swastika turned into a square with the letters “L-O-V-E” written in it. “This is what New Yorkers do, we turn hate into love,” he said. “That is our message to the nation and to the world. And we won’t back down. Not now, not ever.”
Omari’s message is much the same. When asked why he chose to make the swastikas into cheerful cartoons instead of just painting over them, Omari said, “We wanted to answer with love and happiness so that young people can relate to it, and not just people who come from the graffiti or urban life. We take their ugly message and make something beautiful out of it.”
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