On the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, approximately 39,900 years ago, a group of our ancestors stencilled outlines of their hands onto the cave walls in which they lived. These are some of the earliest examples, that we know of, whereby humans have created imagery.
Since that time, our species’ interest in imagery has only increased. The world we inhabit today is a collage of images and designs which has subconscious, but powerful impacts on our psychology and physiology, being able to affect ideas, perceptions, beliefs, feelings, behaviour, and even health.
The technological advancements of the last few decades are driving changes both in our societies and our minds, leading some to claim that we are undergoing a “rewiring” as our culture becomes “increasingly visually based.” (think Instagram and Snapchat over texts, films and TV series over books, or the use of emojis rather than words)
Images can, and do, produce a range of emotions in people when they are looked upon; warmth, safety, comfort, anger, hate, but there is perhaps none more so divisive an image than the swastika.
“The swastika… Such an ongoing topic of debate within tattooing”, Jack Newton tells me. An artist working out of the newly renamed 1770 Tattoo in Brighton, Newton is no stranger to seeing swastikas in tattoo studios.
“I have tattooed the Swastika a number of times, and every time it has been on someone who understands what they are getting tattooed on their skin.” He says that “the symbol itself is one of the oldest recorded in the world” and is not the sole property of racists and neo-Nazis.
Newton recognises the history of the swastika, and though he admits that it has obvious links to Nazism, it is also a symbol of Hinduism and Buddhism. For him, the issue surrounding giving or getting a swastika tattoo is one of context.
“I do not see the problem in getting a Swastika as a tattoo when it is not in context to Nazism”, he says, “to refuse to tattoo the symbol regardless of the symbolism would imply a lack of understanding, or to be afraid of being able to clarify what the symbol itself represents.”
Newton has always wondered how the swastika became so widespread, from being used in a number of religions, to being found engraved in Norse helmets, on the hilt of a Roman sword, or being regarded as a “Whirling Log” by the First Nation people of North America. And though the symbol may be similar, each of the meanings is unique.
He himself has swastika tattoos of his own, the most noticeable of which is on the crown of his head, in the centre of a mandala. “I got this tattooed around 10 years ago now, and have always felt comfortable enough to talk about its meaning,” he says.
Newton assures me a number of times that if he were ever asked to do a Nazi swastika he would refuse, stating that he “does not have time or need for it”, preferring instead to see the client leave the shop and keep their money. “There is no space in my life to entertain those kind of people”, he adds.
I feel he has a sense of reservation when it comes to viewing people with the image, he is less hasty to form an immediate conclusion, rightly following the logic of not judging a book by its cover, and believing that it is better to hear the story behind the tattoo than immediately label the person.
Neil Bass at Tattoo FX in Burgess Hill is another UK-based artist who shares this non-judgmental and more nuanced stance on the issue of tattooing swastikas.
For him, “the swastika is an ancient symbol found across the globe” and was around long before its adoption by the Nazis.
Bass says that the swastika is “a symbol that stands for good luck, power, and strength”, and he sports a number of them on his own body. Various swastika geometric designs – known as key patterns, can be found across his torso and arms, I am told he has a Jainist swastika on his foot, and like Newton, he also has a swastika inked on his head. This, he tells me, is a “Rangoli Swastika design, usually drawn onto Indian houses for protection.”
Over the years, Bass has had numerous requests to ink swastikas, not all of which he has taken. And though he has tattooed “quite a few of them” over his career, it is always done in close consultation with the client, ensuring that they know the “meaning behind it” and the “history of the symbol.”
The walls of his studio are adorned with designs that incorporate swastikas, with tiles and artwork featuring the image clearly visible to potential customers. With the almost inevitable questions that come from having these lining the walls, Bass holds conversations on the topic saying that this dialogue “is a good way for positive information to get out there.”
Quite flatly, I am told that they always refuse to tattoo Nazi swastikas in the shop, “it just will not happen here,” he says.
Of course, artists aren’t the only members of the tattoo community to face questions about their use or non-use of swastikas. Customers do too.
Sofia Hayat – a model and former 81st sexiest woman in the world according to FHM in 2013 – made headlines in South Asia earlier this year due to her decision to get the image inked on her feet.
And whilst in Europe, a swastika has immediate connections to Nazism and the far-right, in Asia its use in religion and spirituality is more likely to be the reason why getting it inked on your body may be seen as offensive.
In late February of this year, Hayat showcased her latest ink to the rest of the world and immediately found herself the subject of a police complaint.
After revealing two swastikas tattooed on the soles of her feet, she not only received a backlash on social media, but was also accused of disturbing the “public peace and public tranquillity and public order”.
The Times of India ran an article on the story highlighting the nature of the complaint. By tattooing a sacred symbol on the soles of her feet, Hayat was said to be insulting religions and was accused of having “made fun of [the] Hindu and Muslim community”.
Hayat, herself a Muslim, refused to accept the accusations and passionately defended her decision online. Although we had an initial exchange of email, I was unable to get her comment for this piece.
It is clear then that the meaning of imagery is dependent on culture, and to further understand the apparent flexibility of the swastika, I spoke with the organiser of the 2017 Nepal Tattoo Convention, Bijay Shrestha.
He told me that in Nepal, “the swastika symbol represents good luck” and is a symbol that brings good fortune to those that wear it.
Like both Newton and Bass, Shrestha has a swastika tattoo of his own. Positioned on his back, it is an award-winning piece that was done at the DC Tattoo Convention in 2014, by his friend Mohan Gurung.
Though Shrestha is happy to show his ink whilst in Asia, stating that the “symbol can be used more openly” in the region, he recognises that in Europe, and the West generally, it comes with additional baggage.
Not only does he hide his swastika tattoo when outside Asia, he is also now more cautious of the clothes that he wears. “When we first moved to New York City in 2014, we lived in Brooklyn, and that summer was biking and exploring the area.” Clad in a black t-shirt with a big golden Manji (a Japanese swastika), Shrestha sensed a lot of people looking at him. He realised that he was in Borough Park, “home to one of the largest Orthodox Jewish communities outside of Israel”, and not wanting to insult anyone or get into a confrontation, Shrestha rode out of the area as quickly as possible.
Shrestha recognises the different cultures of the West and Asia, and accommodates them as best he can, depending on where he is in the world. “I think the scar that symbol has caused in the West is much deeper and painful, and I respect that emotion”, he says.
A common thought that appeared in all of the conversations with the people I spoke to, was that of dialogue. Making time to have a discussion on the topic of swastikas with anyone that was interested. Shrestha felt no different, stating that he did not “want to upset a stranger” and that he was “always ready to explain the real meaning of the symbol if anyone asks”.
As with most things, it seems that there is no definitive right or wrong on the issue of swastika tattoos. Unlike their representation on the skin, the morality or ethics behind getting the symbol in the first place is not so black and white.
And whilst the old mantra of not judging a book by its cover still holds true, we should take some personal responsibility and be mindful of how different cultures can view things in different ways.
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