Peace and Love, via Swastikas

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

But in fairness, the advocates of reclamation agree that the Nazi symbol will always represent hate—and is sadly still used for that purpose. “I'm not saying to change that meaning,” Wesson says. “I would like it to see it put it in the right context so that a distinction is made. ... The swastikas I use are all based off of ancient positive versions. Even the donut is made to be flat (more like a Buddhist or Native American swastika) and not at a 45-degree angle like the Nazi version. Education makes it possible to see a difference.”

Responses to signs, marks and symbols are invariably personal. “I do have a spiritual (not religious) link to the symbol as I do to some other symbols, mainly triangles and sacred geometry,” Wesson says. “I have a Sanskrit tattoo of 'Om Mani Padme Hum,' which is a sacred Tibetan Buddhist prayer.”

Wesson's first swastika product was a rainbow swazi created while working for a company creating t-shirt graphics. He was told to use bright colors and the company’s sales rep mentioned that of all graphics, rainbows were hardest to sell. “At the time they were usually only found on infant clothes or in LGBT pride designs,” Wesson says. “Something clicked and I knew that a rainbow would be the perfect match for the swastika designs I was making at home. The goal was to create as simple a swazi image as possible while conveying it in a positive light.” Another influence, Noam Chomsky, once pointed out that the slogan "Support The Troops” was a phrase that no one could be against. “I then knew the swazi needed such a phrase,” Wesson says. He found one: "You Are Beautiful." 

Making positive swastika art felt "forbidden," he explains. “But I couldn't help but be so inspired by all the others around the world tattooing positive swazis or using it in their designs.” 

Spiritual Punx

When Wesson first started making swastika art he was somewhat afraid, even believing he might get shot walking down the street while wearing a swazi. “However as time has passed and I've worn swastika clothing in many places. ... I've never had someone come up and voice their disapproval. Of course, there are definitely some looks and double takes, but nobody has been antagonistic.”

The question is whether the swastika can, in fact, be returned to its original meaning. “If we believe it's impossible, then of course it is,” Wesson says. “If we believe it's possible, then perhaps there is at least a chance of giving back the symbol to all the cultures and traditions that cherish it."

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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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