The article is about Irish Swastika reclaimationists Dominick Crowley of My Swastika documentary, Phil Cummins of Traditional World Culture Festival, Boz Mugabe of The Gentle Swastika blog and Trevor McLave of pro Swastika metal band Coldwar. Artist known as Manwoman is also discussed. Photos used in the article are from The Gentle Swastika blog 卐
by Alexa MacDermot
I visited Dominick at his flat in Kilmainham in March 2011, where I learned about what it was to be a Swastika reclaimationist. He is part of a group who call themselves the Gentle Swastika Collective. In Ireland the most prominent reclaimationists include Boz Mugabe, an Irish surrealist artist; Phil Cummins, a tattoo artist in Cork; Trevor McLave, lead singer of the metal/punk rock band “Cold War”; ManWoman, a Canadian artist, poet and writer; and a rock band called “Yurt”. Although Ferank Manseed, a Buddhist tattoo artist, is based in the U.K., he can also be considered a major figure on the Irish reclaimationist scene. Driven by their own artistic goals they each strive to use the tetraskellion in their art, the collective umbrella term for the hundreds of symbols that are known loosely to most people as swastikas.
The Collective has a large following world-wide made up of spiritualists, scientists, artists, and people of a multitude of varying professions, and as Dominick pointed out to me the swastika affects every possible facet of life – from architecture to theology, electronics to history.
Dominick is currently filming and editing footage for his documentary My Swastika, interviewing people from different religions, age groups, and professions about their opinions concerning the reintroduction of the swastika into mainstream society as a peaceful and healing symbol. Dominick, and his Polish fiancée, Kasia, have armed themselves with a library full of reference books with which to argue the positive of every possible argument against the reintroduction of the symbol, and serve to illustrate the reasons they see as the backbone of their project. This academic approach of presenting theories with references has the stamp of Kasia’s higher education background.
Kasia is an archaeologist, and as a scientist this “journey” into an increased awareness and understanding of the symbol is, for her, one of intellectual properties only. With an education and professional life grounded in research and documented fact, Kasia forms the logical and earthly-bound Ying to Dominick’s neo-theological Yang. For Dominick, this is a spiritual journey that came to him as a calling from Swastika itself – he uses the word to describe the spirit of the symbol that embodies it, a presence who speaks to him when meditated upon.
The Gentle Swastika Collective seem to boldly play with fire by publicising their loyalty to a symbol that is for the West very clearly associated in the mainstream psyche with Nazi Germany. When I asked what I supposed to be a constant enquiry into their response to people who might accuse them of Neo-Nazi sympathy, Dominick and Kasia replied they had not yet been asked this. Whether this was due to lack of exposure of the Collective, or a suprising number of unquestioning followers or simply a lack of general interest in the question, they told me they were not at all pro-Nazi, and furthermore that the symbol had been bastardised by Hitler’s Third Reich from its peaceful beginnings.
Anyone who has been to India might recall that the swastika has a multitude of different forms that are represented in art and architecture. Its four-legged wheel is a recurrent symbol of the Hindu faith, in particular “Jainism” meaning the seventh saint, Tirthankara Suparsva. In Hindu “svastika” means lucky or auspicious, and Jain temples and holy books contain this symbol many times over. Although the swastika is an Eastern holy symbol and is acceptable and revered in India, the people of the West are not yet a hundred years past the fall of Hitler’s hold over Europe, and thus the symbol still generates an extreme reaction to those whose families were affected in the Holocaust not so very many generations ago.
Canadian reclaimationist, ManWoman, is someone who is quick to state on his website that he has no desire to undermine or insult those who were personally or indirectly affected by the atrocities performed beneath the symbol in the Nazi camps. But is this avoidable? Certainly one cannot please everyone, but is it simply ‘too soon,’ and if so when would the time be right? Dominick believes that to disgrace the swastika because of the millions who died is unfair to the original meanings behind the symbol.
If that is the reason people would turn away from it then should we also consider other symbols that have heralded armies in fanatical religious wars? Such as the Christian crucifix for example, responsible for the Holy War that waged for nearly two hundred years between Christians and Muslims, pagans, heretics, and anyone else who wasn’t Roman Catholic. Against Hitler’s six year rampage across Europe, the Crusades killed far more people. But the Crusades are no longer present in living history whereas there are still living Holocaust survivors, and hardly-weathered memorials that still retain an acute sense of despair and horror.
Kasia realises that there is no difference in most people’s minds between the word “Hitler” and the symbol of the Nazi hakenkreuz – “hooked cross”. Indeed, the documentary Triumph of the Will (1934) by Leni Riefenstahl, was unable to use a picture of Hitler due to technical faults and substituted a swastika to achieve the same effect in post-production. Despite these vertiginous hurdles the Gentle Swastika Collective wish to reinstate the symbol, and give it a rebirth from the ashes of the Holocaust.
The documentary divides the reclaimationists into three distinct categories, that has defined the symbol in three separate ways in turn. There are those that collect memorabilia from a time when the symbol was accepted by societies in the West, and was used as logos, seen on clothing, jewellery and by businesses that deny ever using it when asked today. For these people the importance of hunting and gathering the symbol in its various forms is of historical and sociological interest. Collections in individuals’ homes across the world are full of swastikas that meant something utterly different in their time, and websites pioneering the Collective are sent photographs of these objects to post up daily. As well as objects, a fascination with swastika tattoos has risen, that leads on to the second group of reclaimationists.
Dominick understands that young people need something to fight for, something to believe in and to defend. A symbol as downtrodden and demonised as the swastika becomes like an empty vessel for people who want to champion freedom of expression, anti-establishment thinking, and to become an activist in defense of perceived injustice. Reclaiming the swastika fills a need to create a backlash against mainstream culture. For this reason we see a huge amount of people within the punk community embracing this movement as it provides a banner under which to march.
Tattoo artist Phil Cummins runs the Traditional Tattoo and World Culture Festival, that has become an unofficial European event that brings reclaimationists together for three days a year in Cobh, Co. Cork. People can roam the fields wearing swastika symbols without fear ofreproach, attend spiritual ceremonies that focus on the symbol’s self-affirming aspect, and have hand-poked tattoos of a variety of patterns, including swastikas, that collectively give rise to a sensation of membership. These people feel a keen sense of belonging as they come together at the festival. Ironically, while some devotees have swastikas tattooed on body parts like their arm-pits or feet, the Hindus to whom this symbol is sacred define these areas as unclean, and therefore the tattoo is placed disrespectfully. But many attendees are not Hindu, and have embraced the symbol for their own interpretation. This freedom to do what you want with the symbol is welcomed by those who dislike religious doctrine, and are looking for something that is as inclusive as it is distinct from those who are not as ‘free-thinking’ as them. To follow swastika you can be a rebel and a hippy.
Leading the spiritual aspect of the festival is ‘Manwoman’, who has been called the father of the swastika reclamation. He has embraced the symbol in his life for over fourty years. He is a collector of swastika paraphernalia, educates interested parties about the symbol’s history, and plainly feels a deep spiritual calling to offer the overall negative current opinion about the swastika his own enlightened one. Manwoman is part of the third perceived branch of the reclaimationists, who are less concerned with the physical symbol itself and most connect with the spiritual meaning of swastika. The word itself has the universal meaning of a peaceful attitude towards the whole, with minor variations depending on each culture who uses it: the Hindus translate swastika as ‘peace and unity’, the Indians ‘all well-being’. In fact to use the word ‘swastika’ outside of speaking about the Indian symbol is incorrect. To speak about the tetraskellion in China you would call it ‘wan’, or in Japan it would become ‘manji’. There are hundreds of different tetraskellion symbols and each one has its own particular name, yet they are all associated in the West with Hitler’s atrocities.
If an individual’s aversion to the symbol stems from recent history then it also depends on the surfeit of the symbol within the country they live in. One might conclude automatically that the people of Poland would naturally despise it as an aberration, and the suggestion of reclaiming it as something other than Nazi ideology as amoral and disrespectful. But Dominick found that when interviewing public on the streets of Warsaw – the site of the largest ghetto of Jewish people in Nazi-occupied Europe – they had a more understanding opinion of reintroducing the swastika than he had encountered elsewhere. The documentary puts that down to simple saturation of the symbol throughout people’s lives, and and how it remains a part of the culture even today. People in Poland are more aware of the early history of the swastika than one would expect from a country that suffered so greatly. Rather than rejecting it outright it has been examined, dissected, and sometimes separated completely from its European history.
Some prominent Irish reclaimationists are more inclined towards the idea as a counter-culture, such as artist Boz Mugabe and musician Trevor McLave. The use of the swastika in Mugabe’s art is designed more as a provocation towards curiosity about the symbol, and questioning why it would be placed with such frequency and boldness in his paintings. The subjects of Mugabe’s work are imaginary, mythical and primitive monsters that are placed within dream-like landscapes, and so the occurrence of such a symbol within that context is more easily looked over as idiosyncrasy by a casual observer than it an isolated instance.
‘Cold War’, the band led by McLave, uses the swastika less overtly by occasionally wearing the Gentle Swastika Collective tee-shirt onstage, but he connects with the punk mentality of freedom of expression and supports the idea by attending and playing at the Festival. When asked, they found that pin-pointing the exact reasons behind their support of the reclaim the swastika idea impossible, because the very aspect ofthe Collective is ever transient and shifting. They might chose to support it, and become part of something that is constantly shifting depending on who is part of the online community, or gathering, or individual polemic. Or they could distance themselves from it and risk a chance to be part of a fascinating discourse about ownership, cultural doctrine, and individual expression. I doubt either Mugabe or McLave feel strongly about outside perceptions of themselves as individuals, or their art and music. However, it may well affect how others see them and be tempted to create a one-sided argument against the decision to be part of it, as all reclaimationists may incur.
Phil Cummins, who organised the second Traditional Tattoo an World Culture Festival in Co. Cork in June this year, feels a passionate spiritual belonging to the swastika and it’s meaning of ‘all well-being’. He has already sacrificed and gained much to this calling, once again asking the question of how far an individual is willing to be dictated by the perceptions of others in the drive and ambition of their lives. Cummins invited Manwoman to Ireland in 2010, which immediately made his ideas and influence more immediate to collectors, punk anti-establishment followers, and spiritualists. The Festival changed the dynamic of the swastika Collective as it gave the online community a chance to come together, exchange ideas, and pushed it from being a commitment on cyber space to a place where rituals, talks and celebrations took place under the flagship of the swastika.
There is a palpable sense of the reclaim the swastika idea gaining momentum, and the My Swastika documentary has recorded the opinions of people from a variety of cultures, ages, and backgrounds to show where it stands today. I visited Dominick again recently and found that his allegiance to the Collective had undergone a shift. I had last heard how he was creating the documentary to challenge views of the swastika and illustrate the difference between Hitler’s bastardised symbol and the one that reflected peace and unity. He filmed the concluding interview for the film in Warsaw’s Polish Hindu Temple, and came away realising that while some may argue championing the swastika as freedom of expression, there runs the danger of doing more damage than good. My Swastika will prove that there is much to be gained from living the peaceful path that the spiritual aspect of swastika asks of its followers, and releasing the self-interest of the individual, to embrace the whole. The final part of the documentary that explores this dichotomy in full is not to be missed.
My Swastika began life as a short film that expanded into a full-length documentary, as Dominick and Kasia excavated a mountain of undocumented facts and prominent people in religious, social and peripheral groups, that enriched the understanding of the project. Reclaiming the swastika as an idea will divide, unite, and at the very least inspire debate, between people from every walk of life. The documentary will premiere at the next Traditional Tattoo and World Culture Festival 卐
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