I saw the below image on Instagram this morning. Created with dot-work, this palm tattoo has a swastika in the centre.
It reminded me of the very first time I saw a swastika tattoo, how surprised I had been to see it, and what it had in fact encouraged me to learn. That the swastika is one of the most mis-understood symbols in the world.
Years ago, when visiting TattooFest in Krakov, Poland I remember seeing this symbol all day – on prints, tattoos, t-shirts. It can’t mean what I think it means, can it? I remember thinking to myself.
To most people, this shape represents the murder of millions of people. That’s what we learn in school, see in documentaries and films. Most of us (perhaps my generation mainly) have never properly explored where this symbol came from originally.
The swastika is one of oldest ancient symbols in the world and has been around for over 3,000 years. The word swastika comes from the Sanskrit svastika – meaning “to be good” or “to be lucky”. For the majority of those 3,000 years, it has been a symbol of strength, positivity and good luck, in countries such as India, China, Greece and Germany. It has remained an important symbol for Hindus and Buddhists and an integral image in their history and culture. For Buddhism in fact, the swastika represents Buddha’s heart and is often seen imprinted on his chest in drawings and statues.
But because the symbol had these ancient Aryan origins, German nationalists in the mid-nineteenth century saw it as the perfect icon to represent their strong views. By the end of the nineteenth century, it has become the emblem for German nationalism, and on August 7th, 1920, at the Salzburg Congress, a black swastika in a white circle became the official party flag for the Nazi Party.
Within a short period of time, this symbol had now gained completely different connotations, now standing for death, murder, hate and war. This image now symbolised tragedy: tragedy for the people effected, tragedy for the world, and tragedy for this hopeful imagery that had previously represented something uplifting.
Many tattooed communities are passionate about defending the swastika and reclaiming its status as a positive spiritual emblem. They believe it still stands for goodness and the time has come for us to claim it back in a public stand against racism.
In 2013, tattoo shops all over the world offered free swastika tattoos as part of the Learn to Love the Swastika campaign. People had to sign a form stating their tattoo was not for Neo-Nazi reasons and then they had it permanently inked on their skin in an attempt to spread the word about the swastika’s true origins.
As I delve further into the meaning of this symbol, it becomes clear to me why so many are fighting to reclaim it. It had an infinite number of meanings across the entire world and throughout history. It is printed and etched on thousands and thousands of caves, statues, temples… on items of furniture, jewellery, ornaments, books and art, as an enforcement of a positive, good and hopeful message.
Finding out so much about the swastika’s history aroused questions in my own mind. Was it dangerous to tattoo anything upon your body? No matter the meaning to you, the symbol could all of a sudden mean something negative to the entire world, leaving you victim to judgement and verbal abuse. Was it worth the risk?
Only through people making decisions now can we ever reclaim the swastika’s goodness, change opinion and spread peace, and admittedly tattoos are a powerful way to do that.
That’s why we get tattoos – they have the power to change us and the world around us.
Go spread the word.