Ibo Omari’s war against swastikas began earlier this year, when a man walked into his Berlin graffiti store and asked for a few cans of spray paint. The man had been playing with his son at a nearby playground and noticed a huge Nazi flag painted on an adjacent wall. The father wanted to paint over the flag himself, but Omari wouldn't let him.
"We said we are going to take care of it — don’t spend any money, don’t get your hands dirty," Omari recalls. "So we went there and made something beautiful out of it."
Within a few minutes, Omari and another artist transformed the giant swastika into a cartoonish mosquito, effectively neutering a symbol that continues to haunt Germany. Not long afterward, another friend told Omari of another swastika they had seen painted in a Berlin park, and suggested that he perform the same kind of street art alchemy.
Thus began Paintback, a campaign to change neo-Nazi graffiti into playful images. Over the last few months, Omari and 11 other members of his graffiti collective have transformed around 50 swastikas into a variety of whimsical designs: rabbits, owls, even Rubik’s cubes. The campaign began in Berlin and has since spread to other cities across Germany, thanks in large part to social media.
The idea, Omari says, is to encourage young people to reclaim urban spaces that have been smeared with Nazi iconography. Through graffiti workshops held at his NGO, Die kulturellen Erben e.V. ("The Cultural Heritage"), Omari and other members of his collective developed templates that kids and other street art novices could easily use to alter swastikas.
"We wanted to answer with love and happiness so that young people can relate to it, and not just people who come from the graffiti or urban life," Omari said in a phone interview this week. "We take their ugly message and make something beautiful out of it."
Far-right groups have seen a resurgence in Germany, amid an influx of more than 1 million refugees fleeing Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Politically motivated violent crimes rose by more than 40 percent across the country in 2015, according to government statistics, and authorities have sought to crack down on anti-migrant hate speech posted online.
Omari, a lifelong Berliner, says neo-Nazi sentiment has seeped into the urban landscape, as well. He and his colleagues spent weeks scouring for swastikas in local parks where far-right groups are known to hang out, and quickly "beautified" those that were most prominent. A short video they created went viral in Germany, and soon others began posting images of their own swastika transformations on social media, under the #Paintback hashtag.
Carrying out their work hasn’t always been easy. It’s illegal to display swastikas and other Nazi-era symbols in Germany, but graffiti artists can also face fines if they paint a wall without permission. Omari says that the Paintback collective has always obtained permission from building owners before painting over the swastikas, and local authorities have allowed them to skip the bureaucratic processes normally required to paint on public walls.
Far-right groups have been less conciliatory. Omari says some neo-Nazis have tried to intimidate collective members as they paint, while others have left hateful comments on the Facebook page for his graffiti store. "You can’t do a campaign like this without offending someone in Germany," he says.
Omari isn’t the only one trying to purge Berlin’s streets of racist propaganda. Irmela Mensah-Schramm, a 70-year-old former schoolteacher, has spent 30 years scraping off and painting over neo-Nazi symbols across the German capital, and continues her work despite facing numerous assaults over the years.
"I have a strong appreciation for human dignity," Mensah-Schramm told The New York Times this year. "When I see someone’s dignity being hurt, I feel it myself."
The campaign is personal for Omari, as well. The son of a Lebanese father and Turkish mother, he and his family fled Beirut in the late 1970s, after civil war broke out, and arrived in Germany as refugees. (He was actually born in Warsaw after the plane taking his family to Germany made an emergency landing.) As a self-described "prototype refugee child," Omari says the Nazi flag painted on that local playground last year struck especially close to home.
"I grew up in Berlin, and in the last 20 years there has been a lot of change," he says. "But now when all this right wing hate comes back, I feel like nothing has changed."
"It’s strange that in 20 years of integration and politics, people still feel scared by foreigners — like, people they don’t know, their first reaction is fear," he adds. "And this is unacceptable for us."
(C) The Verge