BBC Home > BBC News > Magazine

Me and my swastika

29 October 08 15:51 GMT

For Hindu DJ Nerm, the swastika is a symbol of goodwill. Can he reclaim it from its indelible Nazi connotations - and how do people react to his swastika tattoo?

The swastika is perhaps the most vilified symbol in the world. It conjures up images of Nazi death camps and neo-fascists, and strikes fear into the hearts of those who "don't belong" - Blacks, Asians and anyone foreign.

And me? I have a swastika symbol tattooed on the inside of my lip. And I'm Asian. How could I do that?
I'm of Indian origin and in my culture the swastika is a symbol of peace and goodwill. I only found out about Hitler's appropriation of it when I studied history at school. I was astounded.

While DJing on tour in Los Angeles in 2000, I decided I would reclaim the swastika for my culture with a tattoo on the inside of my lip. The tattooist was taken aback that I would want a "Nazi logo" on my body until I explained its true meaning.

But the tattoo has faded over time. To get it redone, I visit Naresh, a tattoo artist in Kentish Town. He is mixed race with an Indian parent, and knows the symbol well, having tattooed several Indian swastikas in his time.

When people see my retouched tattoo - even good friends - they reel. I find myself repeatedly explaining what the swastika means to me and my cultural heritage, and that the symbol had been one of peace and positivity for thousands of years before Hitler stole it.

But ultimately this symbol means too much to too many.

Lord Greville Janner, a war crimes investigator after World War II, has seen first-hand the swastika used in the name of evil and destruction. Although he knows the Eastern meaning, he still cannot bear to see the sign - it reminds him of the crimes committed by the Nazis, and the fact that most of his family died in death camps.

"I've seen the swastika [in India] in its original form, and I don't like it. I understand the Indians using it, but I don't like it."

The musician and world beatbox champion Beardyman is Jewish and unaware of the swastika's peaceful origins. But he thinks there is hope for its rehabilitation.

"Symbols in themselves mean nothing, it's what they represent. A word can have two meanings, as can symbols.

"I wouldn't be surprised if you came up against some people of my grandparents' generations who are still directly affected by it who say that they never want to see the symbol again, but that could die with their generation. It might just be a matter of time. But it could be too early."

More worrying, perhaps, is the continued misuse of the swastika as a symbol of hate. Weyman Bennett, of the anti-Fascist movement Unite, has witnessed racist attacks carried out under the swastika.

"The swastika has been hijacked. To take it back means unwinding history. Over every death camp in Europe flew a swastika. Over every assault in the 1970s, they used a swastika.

"I still think that the swastika stands for hate at the moment, not its historical meanings. But we should have hope."

Maybe one day I will be able to proudly display a swastika. Until that day, I'll keep it close to my heart. Or at least my teeth.

Related BBC sites

*