Autumn is a rare occasion when the loveliness and grace of death is appreciated. The leaves fade from vibrant green to rich ocher as the chemical chlorophyll inside the multiple cells breaks down and stops the food-making process. The tree sheds leaves as days get shorter and the temperature plummets, withdrawing into itself to brace for the oncoming ruthlessness of winter. Even as summer fades and the petunias we planted last spring begin their final stages, these woods and this path have never seemed more alive. The fall breeze caresses my face, a gentle nudge with only a hint of the ice to come. I fill my lungs with the earthen scent of cool, compacted dirt; sweet maple trees and damp, decomposing leaves scattered all around my boots. This path I’ve huffed along on my bike a million times is scampering with life as I casually walk down it now. The animals are preparing their lives for the difficult months ahead; they don’t need a clock or a schedule to tell them what the air and trees already have. They are connected to this wood in constant interaction. The veins in the leaves resemble the ones on my arms and I can’t imagine a picture or words ever capturing this.
Flipping through pictures of walking paths and woods on an IPod, a tablet, a laptop does not capture the enormity of a thirty foot tree as you stand at the base looking up, or the pleasant surprise as a tiny chipmunk darts across the path right before your feet. You don’t get the intense and emotional duality of feeling your own insignificance, and importance, in a place like this; a place devoid of wires and buttons as hard as that might be for my generation to imagine. The enormity of life going about its business regardless of my existence opens me up to the possibility that, regardless of what I’ve been lead to believe from my American background, the world does not revolve around me. I can take all the snapchats I want and still this caterpillar will continue its slow and steady crawl across the wooden board beside my thigh not ever knowing of my existence and I can post as many statuses and pictures of cats and still this tree, that has been growing since before I was born, will continue to do so long after I am buried next to his brethren. I am insignificant, but what I do does matter whether for good or for ill in the environment.
Once, I was at dinner with my best friend. I set aside my phone, turning it on silent. She spent the entire time tweeting, snapchatting, Facebooking, instagraming, vining, and texting people miles away. I had to remind her several times that she was having dinner with me, not the internet. New parents are paying less and less attention to their kids, focusing more on their phones than playing and interacting with the life they created. Partners are less responsive to each other’s emotions and have less meaningful interactions due to increase in attention directed to electronic devices. A million stories telling a million different negative effects this addiction has on the relationships in our lives. I have four hundred and fifty-one friends on Facebook and only see one on a regular basis. This ability to reach those far away from us or getting in touch with anyone at any time has isolated us as humans, classified as one of the most social species along with the dolphins, orcas, and wolves. The only “real world” experience most people receive is from a screen.
It is easy to understand why not only environmental issues, but relationships with anything are difficult for a majority of Americans to care about. When most are staring at a screen, cloaked in headphones and seclusion the world can seem a foreign place, no more real than the T.V shows and movies seen on Netflix. On this path that I could ride in the dark, there are no filters between me and a cardinal sitting on a branch not 2 feet from my bench, no layers between me and the rough bark under my fingertips, no wires needed to connect to this place and these images. Face to face, a healthy dose of pure unadulterated interaction.
The lobby was clean, if a little wanting in decoration, with certificates of all the appropriate licensures and health inspections framed on the wall. I heard a frantic “hang on one sec!” from a high pitched voice behind the closed reception window filled with business cards and official forms. I plopped onto the hard, plastic chairs laid out like a doctor’s waiting room. Looking around trying to distract myself from aniexty, I felt my palms begin to moisten with cold sweat. I plucked a piece of lint off the hoodie I wore over a tank top for easy access to my bare shoulder. Unlike a doctor’s office however, the usual months old Glamour and Parents magazines were not fanned out on the coffee table next to me. At Sacred Body Works, what I had at my disposal were magazines like Tattoo and Skindeep. There were also magazines for handguns, but since clips and rapid fire hold no interest for me, I snagged one of the former. While thumbing through, a swastika tattooed on a man’s arm caught my eye and after glancing around to see if I was going to be attended to relatively soon, I delved deeper.
The tattooist is Little Swastika, a German artist ambitiously hoping to change the post-World War II opinion on swastikas. The article explained Little Swastika’s keen interest in freeing the symbol from Nazi pollution using the medium of art he began at age 9, tattooing. On his self-titled website he gives a brief history of the swastika, demonstrating how widespread the symbol was in the primitive world and how it was used from the East to the West. Scandinavians used it as a symbol for the mighty thunder god Thor’s hammer. Irish and Scottish people would inscribe it on their gravestones. In the East, it decorates statues, jewelry, ornaments, and many other items where it is referred to as Buddha’s heart. In many religions in the East, it is seen as a symbol of the highest Creator.
The word itself is Sanskrit (svastika), meaning “good fortune” or “well being.” The hooked cross existed long before Hitler abused it as the motif for Aryan Identity and Germanic pride. It was used in a positive light by religions and artisans thousands of years before the Nazi regime put negative connotations into the minds of the world, morphing the symbol of infinity of creation and the revolving sun into a symbol eliciting hatred and fear. There is a stigma attached to it now, an enormous, black stain that seems almost as permanent as one of Little Swastika’s tattoos.
After I read the article I was intrigued by the enormity of what this artist wanted to accomplish. Could people, especially those effected and uprooted from the actions of the Nazis, really embrace the swastika as something promoting well-being instead of oppression? I heard a lot of laughing coming from the back room when my soon-to-be tattoo artist, Nikki, came bounding out of the backroom. She had a few tattoos, none visible except for a few delicate blue flowers on her chest. “What are we doing tonight!?” she cried even though I was only a few feet from her.
She took me to a back room off the side of the lobby asking me if I had any tattoos already and was shocked when I said I didn’t. There were a few seats in the center of the room, one was a squishy, black, plastic chair that had the same kind of doughnut-hole face pillow as massage tables. I assumed this was my chair. I took my coat off and straddled the chair with uneasy legs. Next to me on a table was a metal sheet with a bunch of intimidating and sharp utensils. I felt like I was on the operating table as Nikki snapped on rubber gloves and brought the tray closer. When she got the outline placed just right on my shoulder blade, she brought out little tiny bottles of ink. She dipped the tip of the silver machine into the ink and turned it on. It was a constant buzzing sound, like a hundred bees getting ready to attack my back. I couldn’t see what exactly she was doing and maybe it was better that way. It was a constant cycle of dipping and pain. Dip and pain. Dip. Pain. She occasionally threw paper towels over on the metal sheet next to me soaked in leftover black ink she wiped off of my skin. There was also a dark red color on the paper towels which took me an absurdly long time to realize was my own blood. All I could think was how much of a masochistic idiot I was and why on earth I was doing this.
The idea for my tattoo, a blind dragon with a manacle strapped to its leg, came from the last Harry Potter book in which the trio break into an amply guarded wizard bank, and set free a security dragon that is chained down, kept in the dark resulting in his blindness, and trained to cower at a specific clanging noise. The trio helps the dragon to break out of his prison and leave him to finally be free from his oppressors. This beautiful, personal symbol of leaving your cage on the ground and recovering that which seems lost, in this case freedom from oppression, is a powerful and timeless one.
Little Swastika is not the only artist trying to reclaim and bring back the original meaning of the swastika. At Meatshop Tattoo in Copenhagen on November 13th last year, owner Peter Madsen put on an event called “Learn to Love the Swastika” in which tattoo artists created swastika related tattoos for free. The money went to a charity to encourage the swastika’s original meaning of “well-being.” Madsen, cautious of misuse and Neo-Nazis, prefaces this event with the assertion that
“We are participating in this event to help rid the swastika of the taint of National Socialism. We will not tattoo people who are racist and/or unegaliterian. If you do not agree with our views, please refrain from setting foot in our shop. We do not condone racism in any way, shape or form.”
Little Swastika expressed the belief that everybody should know the truth and history behind the symbol because it is racism, not an “innocent symbol” that we are fighting against. He tattoos the swastika on those willing to promote its more loving and gentle side, seeing it as an important step in the fight against this kind of hate.
Symbols have always been an important part of art, even for the increasingly popular art form of tattooing and body modification. They still have the ability to trigger strong emotions in people, as we’ve seen in the recent debacle over the Confederate Flag and its long and complicated history in association with racism. Symbols like the Confederate Flag and the swastika can scare and threaten through generations, throwing a people back to a time when dysphoria and oppression ruled lives. It isn’t just a flag or just a crooked cross. The history and representation of these things are the reasons why it is important to really delve into the spirit and the intention to invoke a negative reaction in a people.
So can negative symbols such as the Confederate Flag or the swastika be reclaimed as positive? 93-year-old Holocaust survivor, Freddie Knoller, doesn’t seem to think so. In a BBC News article on the subject Knoller said
“For the Jewish people the swastika is a symbol of fear, of suppression, and of extermination. It’s a symbol that we will never ever be able to change. If they put the swastika on gravestones or synagogues, it puts a fear into us. Surely, it shouldn’t happen again.”
It’s not so easy for the people who lived through the terror and hate the swastika represented to put their fear aside and re-associate it with well-being. Even before Little Swastika there was a fight against the bad reputation the swastika acquired. The group developed in the United States in 1985 by an artist named ManWoman. He claims to have 200 swastikas tattooed all over his body and sells T-Shirts, postcards, and stamps to try and “detoxify” the swastika in the minds of the people. Already the reintegration and transformation of how the swastika is viewed has begun in the alternative pop culture. In places such as India, the swastika’s image never changed from the pre-Hitler associations. One Indian woman was named Swastika. She tells the Huffington Post:
“My parents wanted a daughter with infectious goodness, enthusiasm, and love for life […] and so they decided to give me the name Swastika.”
The reclaiming of symbols for good is not completely unheard of. In Roman times the Christian cross was a symbol of fear and hatred, much like the swastika. It was the symbol of crucifixion, one of the most horrible deaths imaginable where you are nailed to the cross by your hands and feet, waiting for death to come. It was a symbol of the power of the Roman Empire, meant to keep the people in check. In the fourth century, Roman Emperor Constantine had a religious vision before his battle against Emperor Maxentius. His vision was of the cross, high in the sky with the words” by this symbol you will conquer.” He put the cross upon the shields of his men and the military banners they carrier. Once he gain his victory, the cross was reclaimed and made into a symbol of hope and is now the most honored and distinguished symbol in Christianity. The petrifying and oppressive meaning lost its repressive power. It is now the very people it meant to hold down and frighten that wear it proudly and use it in their houses of worship.
My shoulder was raw, tender, sensitive, sore, and bleeding once Nikki was done. Her partner came in and examined her handiwork, complimenting Nikki on her details and texture. I still couldn’t see what she had done, but at least I knew I wasn’t leaving with just a blobby mass of ink and blood. When she finally showed me I was instantly pleased. Her partner was right, the details and texture were beautiful. She got every tooth, every nail, every bend of the neck and fold in the wings. It was my own symbolic treasure. I wasn’t trying to politically transform people’s minds with my tattoos like Little Swastika or Peter Madsen, but in a way I was taking something negative, my past and the pain from the actual tattooing process, and changing it into a positive symbol of well-being for myself. Maybe time, fabled to be the greatest healer of all, will be enough to change the symbol for one of the most infamous genocides the world has ever seen, back to one of good luck.