The Swastika in the Spotlight

Don’t you just hate it when people look at your tattoos, shake their head knowingly and say “you’ll regret that one day”? On the other hand, some tattoos are just never a good idea, and that is why a lot of responsible artists will refuse to tattoo certain symbols and imagery on their clients.

At the end of last week a firestorm of controversy engulfed a Russian opera singer who had made the unfortunate decision to get neo-Nazi imagery tattooed on his body, although he said he didn’t realise this was what the symbols meant.

Bass baritone Evgeny Nikitin pulled out of a scheduled performance at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany – where he was meant to sing the lead in Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman – after photos emerged of his provocative body art.

It is illegal to display the Nazi version of the swastika in Germany anyway, and what made this guy’s situation even more awkward in relation to this performance was that Wagner himself was an anti-Semite and his family had connections to the Third Reich.

The offending tattoos were a swastika on the singer’s chest and a ‘life rune’: a symbol used by an SS eugenics project which tried to create a ‘racially pure’ Aryan breeding programme. In his defence, Nikitin said he got the work done when he was much younger and did not understand the significance of the images. Describing the tattoos as “a big mistake”, he said he had chosen them from a book about Nordic mythology in the tattoo studio, and for him they had spiritual rather than political significance.

You can read the full story in the German press here and in the Telegraph here.

There is a strong movement in some parts of the tattoo community to reclaim the swastika, because many people don’t understand the difference between the Nazi symbol of hatred, which is right facing and rotated, and the auspicious sign of goodness which has been part of many Indian religions for thousands of years. Xed Le Head and co at Divine Canvas, as well as Manwoman are among those trying to reverse the demonisation of this important symbol. Manny is a brilliant guy, and has been hailed by some as the founding father of the swastika movement.

Hopefully the story of the opera singer will bring this issue back into the spotlight.

This also raises some interesting questions about how far it is a tattoo artist’s responsibility to ensure a customer doesn’t get a tattoo which makes a statement they might one day wish to retract. Most tattooists I have asked about this said they would always refuse to tattoo offensive imagery or anything that made them uncomfortable, but obviously, what is classed is offensive is highly subjective.

Tattooists, what are your hard limits when it comes to the work you are prepared to do? I’d love to hear your views on this.










My name is Hannah Smith and I am a regular contributor to Tattoo Revolution Magazine, and now I blog for Tattoosday UK, as long as you dear readers don’t run me out of town! I am on the hunt for ideas for future blog posts so please send me your pics, news, views, whatever to or hannah_fran_ink

4 Responses to “The Swastika in the Spotlight”
  1. It’s not a symbol I would feel comfortable tattooing on anyone.

    • Mel Noir says:

      That’s a shame Dereck, it would be nice if people could see past the whole Nazi thing. It’s understandable not wanting to tattoo it on anyone, you’ll never know if they’ll be able to handle all the crap they might get from it.

      How are you, anyway? It’s been a while! :)

  2. ethnoscape says:

    This is an extremely interesting topic and one that is not dealt with fully because of extreme connotations. Sort of in a similar way that male sexuality is not adequately explored because of the massive historical dominance of men – often sexual – in social history. I was driving past a monument yesterday and there was a gent with an large swastica with a cross through it on his back. He was in what looked like earnest discussion with another gent. Can’t really tell what was going on though, but it made me think of the symbol in question and it’s historical tragectory. It’s use is old, and it’s contemporary use by far right no-hopers is lamentable, but it does have a rich history. Would be very interested to hear commentary from the tattoo scene not just on this particular symbol but on the effect and life of symbols in general as you lot seem to live it in a way that many just live in synapse. Perhaps we need to read more Bourdieu.

    • Mel Noir says:

      Hey there, thanks for commenting.

      I agree, this is something that should be explored a little more, and we’ve tried to push this for a while here. I remember around a year ago I wrote an article for Tattooist Art Magazine about the swastika, and many people weren’t too pleased. We went with it anyway, and the response afterwards was great. I can see what you mean about there being connotations which make writers a little apprehensive about covering a subject like this.

      As for other symbols, it’s certainly something we’re always interested in, though there aren’t many symbols in tattooing which are as controversial. We’ve seen it all before! You’ve definitely made me think, though, and I’ll certainly be looking into those other symbols myself. Maybe you’ll see something else like this in the near future.

      Thanks for commenting, you’ve given some really valuable feedback.

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