Ibo Omari: Graffiti Artist Waging War On Swastikas

© ShonEjai/Pixabay
© ShonEjai/Pixabay
Photo of Lily Cichanowicz
27 September 2016

While it being illegal to display the swastika anywhere in Germany, and the image is even liable to media censorship, this hateful symbol still appears from time to time in public spaces, often in the form of graffiti. As the world promised, ‘never again’, the duty to keep this evil from reemerging belongs to all of us. Ibo Omari is doing his part in the city of Berlin by painting one cute animal at a time.

About a year ago, this graffiti artist began to remove the swastikas he encountered in creative ways. Instead of simply etching them out, Omari converts them into adorable animals and cartoon images.

Omari himself is the owner of a paint shop. The inspiration for his efforts to eliminate the presence of swastikas in Berlin came when a man came into his shop asking to buy some spray paint. He explained to Omari that he was playing with his son and noticed the hateful symbol painted on a wall nearby. This man wanted to paint over the image but Omari wouldn’t let him.

Instead, Omari told the man to save his money, that he would use the supplies in the shop to do the job himself. He and another street artist arrived at the scene and within a few moments they were able to defuse this painful symbol by converting it into a mosquito. Word got out and once Omari started his crusade against the swastika, he noticed them more and more.

Aus Hakenkreuzen etwas Sinnvolles machen… #PaintBack #streetart #graffiti #scheißaufnazis #kreativgegendummheit

A photo posted by Ulrike Schneider (@steinwerferchen) on

As his efforts grew, Omari ended up establishing Paintback, a campaign to dismantle the work of neo-Nazis by turning the swastikas into adorable pictures, effectively performing ‘street art alchemy’. One year later, Omari and 11 others operate the art collective and they have already turned more than 50 swastikas into animals, ranging from owls to rabbits to mosquitoes, daring to search places where neo-Nazis are known to congregate in order to do their work. Still, their efforts have always been legal and permissible, with state officials allowing Omari and his associates to bypass some of the usual bureaucracy that goes into getting permission to paint on public spaces.

#BERLINO – Là dove c'era una svastica ora c'è un coniglietto, parafrasando Celentano. O un cubo Rubik. O una zanzara. E la firma è diventata contagiosa: "paint back", qualcosa come "restituisci il colpo con un disegno". Ormai è un piccolo movimento. Cominciato con una reazione snervata all'ennesima bandiera del Reich scarabocchiata sul muro di un parco per bambini. #IboOmari ha preso le sue bombolette spray e l'ha coperta con un disegno gentile. Fa graffiti da quando è bambino e il suo negozio di colori nel quartiere di Schoeneberg è un punto di riferimento per molti writer berlinesi. La sua piccola rivolta contro rune, croci uncinate, disegni razzisti e inneggianti all'odio è cominciata così, per caso, per un moto di rabbia. Ma "non è stato difficile trovare alleati, in tempi in cui 'Mein Kampf' è tornato un best seller", ha raccontato alla rivista Bento. All'inizio sono partiti in sette e hanno girato il suo quartiere, Schoeneberg, nella ex Berlino ovest, che ha dato i natali a Marlene Dietrich e dove negli anni Settanta abitavano David Bowie e Iggy Pop. Omari e i suoi alleati hanno trasformato una quindicina di scritte barbariche in farfalle, fiori, quadrifogli e gufi. Adesso persino i proprietari di casa chiedono ai writer anti nazi di sovrascrivere le svastiche con disegni. Un movimento come "#PaintBack" non poteva che nascere nella capitale dei graffiti: si stima siano cinquantamila i writer berlinesi. Esistono persino visite guidate alle opere più famose. Ma non sempre i loro disegni piacciono, non sempre si accetta il fatto che si tratti di una contro-cultura e che i disegni siano per definizione politici. Uno stupendo murales alto 42 metri a Reinickendorf che mostra un profugo bambino ricoperto di sangue ha provocato una raccolta di firme nel quartiere perché venga rimosso. Evidentemente ci vuole troppa coscienza per sopportarlo ogni giorno. fonte: #LaRepubblica

A photo posted by Sara Peraldini (@crazy.mom88) on

With the help of social media, people across Germany have been inspired to carry out the work of this clever campaign. Omari hopes to show people that they can reclaim their environments from hatred, taking such matters into their own hands. Omari even teaches graffiti workshops through his own NGO, Die kulturellen Erben e.V. (The Cultural Heritage), to help mobilize forces against these slurs. The team has put together templates so that even the greatest novice can get involved.

The hateful iconography is hurtful to Omari, in particular, as the son of refugees from Lebanon. He explains, ‘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’.

Yet, when prompted about the efforts of those involved in Paintback, he explained, ‘We take their ugly message and make something beautiful out of it’.

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