How a Berlin-based organization is trying to rid the city of swastikas.
Ibo Omari has a plan for when he comes across a swastika painted onto a wall in his hometown of Berlin. He’ll grab a can of spray paint from the graffiti supply shop that he owns, and cover it up. But Omari doesn’t just erase the Nazi trademark—he transforms it.
Since launching Berlin #PaintBack earlier this year, Omari and his fellow organizers have covered up at least 20 swastikas across Berlin, leaving an array of whimsical street art where symbols of hate were once visible. #PaintBack has morphed swastikas into a flower, a fly being chased by a net, and a cat sitting in a window. Through Omari’s NGO, Die Kulturellen Erben (“The Cultural Heritage,” in English), he and his co-members offer workshops for youth and street-art novices on how to enact #PaintBack’s motto: “Answering messages of hate with love.”
The project began, says Victoria Tschirch, the co-founder of Die Kulturellen Erben, when a man walked into the shop and asked for a couple cans of spray paint to cover up a huge Nazi flag painted on a wall in a nearby playground. The man wanted to cover up the symbol himself, but Omari and a fellow street artist said that they would take care of it, free of charge. Within minutes, they’d transformed the symbol into a giant mosquito.
Friends began to alert Omari and his fellow #PaintBack organizers whenever they saw a swastika. Through social media, word of #Paintback’s work spread across Berlin and other parts of Germany. “We are very happy that there are quite a few imitators,” Tschirch says.
The current climate in Germany, Tschirch says, makes #PaintBack’s work all the more urgent. As over 1 million refugees have flowed into the country from the Middle East, neo-Nazi and far-right groups have redoubled their presence, leaving anti-immigrant stickers plastered on walls. According to The Verge, politically-motivated crimes in Germany increased by 40 percent in 2015. “People are manipulated by fear,” Tschirch says. “They fear the unknown and they fear that someone could possibly take something away from them.” While some of the swastikas #Paintback has covered are left over from decades past, many, Tschrich says, were freshly painted.
Omari, who was born in Europe to Lebanese and Turkish parents, told The Verge that the resurgence of right-wing hate has motivated him. “It’s strange that in 20 years of integration and politics, people still feel scared by foreigners,” he said. “That is unacceptable to us.”
Even before #PaintBack took off this year, there’s been a small but vital force pushing back against neo-Nazi sentiment in Berlin. Irmela Mensah-Schramm, a 70-year-old former schoolteacher, has been tearing down swastikas and neo-Nazi posters for the past 30 years. Armed with a scraper and a canvas bag bearing the handwritten slogan “Against Nazis,” Mensah-Schramm has erased a total of 72,354 symbols, according to The New York Times.
“She’s the grandmother of [#PaintBack],” Omari said in the Times. “She’s way more experienced than we are. She’s not digitally connected like we are, but she should have been supported years ago.” A recent fall has limited Mensah-Schramm’s movements and the amount of paint she can carry, but Omari sees #PaintBack continuing the work that she for so long shouldered alone. It’s not been an easy journey: working alone, Mensah-Schramm has been assaulted several times, and her work toes the line of legality in Germany, where it’s technically forbidden paint or otherwise interfere with public property, even if it’s already been tampered with.
#PaintBack, facing the same dilemma, will ask permission of the city or building owners before altering the swastika graffiti they encounter, Tschrich says, but local officials have begun to allow the organization to bypass the bureaucratic process usually required to paint on walls.
#PaintBack’s goal, Tschirch says, is not to simply scrub away the messages. Rather, it’s about activating a community response that makes it clear that hateful sentiments will not win out. “We hope to see more people peacefully claim back their neighborhoods and contribute to building strong, open-minded, and colorful communities,” she says.
H/t The Verge