Peace and Love, via Swastikas

Some graphic designers are trying to embrace the pre-Nazi meaning of the symbol.
Jawny Villany

There may be no graphical symbol more reviled today than the swastika.  In 1921 Hitler adopted the hakenkreuz, or hooked cross, as the logo for the Nazi party and later as the official German flag. Over the following 14 years, the emblem—facing from left to right, tilted with a 45-degree upward angle—became forever associated with racism and genocide.

But in many cultures predating Nazism, the symbol—usually facing right to left, though also with scores of other iterations—is a sign of good fortune, fertility, the four seasons, and other generally positive attributes. The word “Swastika” comes from the ancient Sanskrit language and basically means "to be good."

Today, there are those who would like to highlight and make use of the swastika’s original meaning. Among them is artist and designer Sinjun Wesson, whose Spiritual Punx line of clothing, accessories and stickers—which started in 2013 and is designed to “inspire people to be more loving and accepting to all”—treats the “swasi” as a feel-good icon.

Other charged and controversial signs and symbols, like the peace sign, crucifix, and hammer and sickle, have been adapted for t-shirts and jewelry; Mao, Lenin, Che Guevara are also t-shirt fashion plates. Few people raise an eyebrow. But the swastika, understandably, comes with a lot more baggage in the West. 

Wesson, a native of Joplin, Missouri, who attended The Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles, has been creating fashion since he was in high school 15 years ago, starting with a clothing line called Hybrid Imagery—a fusion of spiritual designs and streetwear with “positive messages.” Currently, he designs for a company creating graphics for t-shirts, leggings, tops, hoodies, etc. “I've always been fascinated with t-shirt graphics as they can be a blank canvas for unlimited creativity,” he says.

His goal in using the swastika in a lighthearted way is to tap into its ancient meaning. He hopes that his “donut swazi,” a graphic creation that is related to an Indian pastry in the shape of a swastika, inspires people to learn more about the history as a symbol of good luck and happy eternity. The donut design is an amalgam of swastikas from Hindu, Buddhist, Native American, Greek, and other global iterations.

“If the hate is taken away from the symbol by energizing its positive side, then we take away power from the people who want to use it in a hateful way,” Wesson says. “If we don't do anything and just leave it as negative, then we still let hate win.”

Spiritual Punx is not the first swastika-reclamation project. The late artist known as Man/Woman founded The Friends of the Swastika, authored the Gentle Swastika, Reclaiming the Innocence, and was featured prominently in the 2010 film, My Swastika. There are also a handful of blogs and websites that advocate for a shift in popular attitudes. In my own book, however, Swastika, Symbol Beyond Redemption?, I challenge the view that it can or even should be entirely reclaimed. (More thoughts on the matter here.)

Presented by

Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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