Ibo Omari's #paintback campaign transforms a message of hate into a message of "humour and love."
Today, nearly a century after World War II, it is illegal to display the image of a swastika anywhere in Germany. The symbol is even given to media censorship, and cannot be shown on television within the country. Originally a sign of good luck dating back almost 5,000 years, the swastika is now one of the most controversial symbols worldwide, and easily the most recognizable image of Nazi propaganda.
Still, Berlin is plagued by neo-Nazis that graffiti the swastika in public spaces. Over a year ago, a shift began to take place in the city when a man came into Ibo Omari’s paint shop, requesting spray paint. The man explained he was playing with his son at a nearby park and spotted a graffitied swastika, which he hoped to cover up.
Omari told the man to save his money, and that he would take care of it himself. Omari transformed the symbol into a mosquito and pledged to change Berlin by covering up the hateful message with whimsical pictures and cartoons. He started the Paintback campaign, which has since swept across social media (#paintback) and spread worldwide.
Omari told BBC, “We’d long wondered how to respond to these hateful messages, and then we said: we’ll respond with humour and love”.
The resurgence of the neo-Nazi symbols around the city last year is partly due to the large population of refugees coming to Berlin. He explained that as a son of refugees from Lebanon, the symbol cuts him particularly deep, “I grew up in Berlin, and in the last 20 years, there has been a lot of change. But now when all this right-wing hate comes back, I feel like nothing has changed”.
Omari held workshops at his paint shop and now is joined by several student artists that took interest in the campaign. The group has been successful and even reports that recently swastika graffiti has begun to taper off. They continue to come up with innovative ideas for masking the symbol, from flowers to owl and kitten cartoons, to Rubik’s cubes. What was formerly a sign of fear and intolerance, has been transformed into joyful art.
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