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Global effort to ‘reclaim’ the swastika, one free tattoo at a time

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(JTA) — As the sun began to set over Copenhagen, Peter Madsen realized he would not be able to serve the dozens of people still waiting in his shop for a free swastika tattoo.

“We had to stop taking in people after the 54th client,” Madsen, artistic designer at the Meatshop tattoo parlor, told JTA on Tuesday — the day that more than 120 similar businesses worldwide offered free tattoos of the ancient Indian symbol as part of campaign titled “Learn to Love the Swastika.”

For the occasion, the Meatshop announced that anyone who enters the shop on Tuesday would be entitled to a $180 swastika tattoo on the house, on a body part of their choosing. The idea, Madsen said, is “to reclaim this symbol, which the Nazis abused, and restore it to its original meaning in India, where is has served for thousands of years as a sign of peace and goodness.”

In Russia, Europe and the English-speaking world, swastikas are popular with white supremacists, given the symbol’s association with Nazism. The symbol has been banned in several European countries with limitations on hate speech, though not in Denmark, where a strong liberal tradition has trumped even the bitter memories from the Nazi occupation during World War II.

Still, the Meatshop’s swastika stunt drew emotional reactions from Danish Jews. “I believe that a symbol that was once something else, but which the Nazis took hostage, cannot just be washed clean,” Finn Schwarz, president of the Jewish Congregation of Copenhagen, told the news site mx.dk. The Meatshop’s attempt to do just that was  “cheap,” he added.

“It’s incredibly disappointing. Our country has one of the world’s highest levels of education, yet some think it could be cool to get a swastika. It’s enough to make one worry about the future,” he also said. Bent Lexner, Denmark’s chief rabbi, was similarly unimpressed, saying the idea was in “bad taste.”

Asked to reply, Madsen said: “I accept the legitimacy of this criticism from the Jewish community, which was hit hardest by the Nazis, and resistance fighters, but refuse to let evil keep this symbol.”

Each person who gets a swastika tattoo at the Meatshop, Madsen said, has to sign a waiver form that states that the tattoo they are getting is not a neo-Nazi symbol.

And what if neo-Nazis still use the Meatshop campaign to get a free tattoo of the Furher’s favorite symbol?

“Well, then they may think they are wearing a symbol of racism but that doesn’t change the fact they are actually wearing on their bodies the symbol for a better world,” Madsen answered.

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