Berlin street artists turn swastikas into art

Ibo Omari fights racism with graffiti

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BERLIN ­­–– Ibo Omari is a swastika hunter.

He travels Germany, searching for swastikas sprayed on walls and obliterates them.

He’s removed the symbol –– once an ancient sign of luck and prosperity, now synonymous with Nazis –– from playgrounds, backyards, public transportation buildings and elevators. He’s even removed swastikas from government offices.

“These people are misusing graffiti,” said Omari, a 36-year-old street artist. “We don’t want our art form to be associated with neo-Nazism and symbols of hate. Instead, we want graffiti to represent peace and inclusivity.”

Since 2015, Omari has removed more than 50 swastikas. His work has cost him more than $6,000 and made him mildly famous, as word of his mission spread. 

Now, he fields around five calls a month for swastika removals in Berlin –– and lately, from across Germany, particularly in Cologne and Hamburg. He’s even received messages from people in Canada and Russia who, inspired by him, removed swastikas in their neighborhoods. People have started referring to Omari and his team as “swastika busters,” a reference to the 1984 film “Ghostbusters.”The rise in swastikas mirrors the growth of far-right parties in Germany. As in Italy, Hungary, Poland and France, far-right parties with nationalist, anti-immigration stances are gaining traction in Germany. In September, a far-right party known as the Alternative for Germany won 13 percent of the seats in German Parliament. It is the first far-right party to hold any seats since the Nazis.

Omari sees this as a worrying trend and fears the lessons of tolerance, humility and acceptance of others that characterized the Berlin of his youth are being overshadowed by frustration and hate. As the son of Lebanese immigrants, he is particularly sensitive to anti-foreigner rhetoric. The trick is, Omari doesn’t actually remove the swastikas. He alters them. He uses spray paint and brushes to transform the swastikas into light-hearted drawings. One drawing shows two men kissing. Another is a bunny with its tongue out.

“Graffiti lets us express ourselves, but often people abuse this freedom of expression,” Omari said. “That’s why we encourage ‘beautifying’ these ugly images.”

Once finished, Omari’s drawings meld into the graffiti-covered walls of Berlin. Although it’s illegal, graffiti is ubiquitous in the German capital and contributes to the city’s edgy image. The Berlin Wall, which zigzagged through the city for 28 years until it fell in November 1989, provided artists with a 27-mile-long canvas. Graffiti artists flocked to the divided city, which came to epitomize the Cold War.

When the Wall fell, property rights in the former East Berlin were murky. Most buildings belonged to the communist government and with the government gone, squatters and graffiti artists moved in.

Omari feels connected to that tradition and makes his living as the owner of a paint shop in a trendy Berlin neighborhood. He is part of a growing group of street artists who work within the law by getting paid commissions to spray-paint buildings with art.

Omari himself began his street art career in elementary school, upsetting janitors by tagging his school’s bathrooms. As he grew up, he honed his style on walls in Berlin which are legal to spray. He bought the paint store in 1993 and erased his first swastika in 2015, when a customer came in asking for paint to cover a swastika he found on a wall near a playground. Omari offered to help and, along with another street artist, he converted the swastika into a mosquito.

He’s begun training the next generation of street artists and runs graffiti workshops for kids. These school-age children, he said, have proven helpful with his swastika makeovers. That’s because children think more simply than adults, he said.

Children, Omari said, don’t carry the historical baggage or get jittery around swastikas as many German adults still do, so their drawings are more carefree.

Omari uses the best drawings as templates. That makes them easy to replicate and allows even the most novice street artists to transform a swastika in minutes.

“Our project is about raising awareness and fighting ignorance towards hateful messages,” Omari said. “The idea is to inspire others and show them our approach to answering such messages of hate with love and creativity.”

He also leads workshops about street art and hip-hop at The Cultural Heirs, an organization he founded in 2013. Last year, more than 700 teens participated in his programs and he has 16 employees.

Altering swastikas is better than removing them, he said, because it changes the message. Plus, the financially-strapped capital doesn’t have the funds or the workforce to remove the swastikas and transforming them is cheap.

“We don’t want to remove the graffiti. We want to beautify it into something enjoyable,” Omari said. “We don’t fight back. We paint back. Not with images of war or calling people names, but with peaceful art."

Omari spreads his message to his growing social media following under #paintback.

Omari’s results may be lighthearted, but his message is not.

Although World War II ended more than 70 years ago, neo-Nazism still flourishes in Germany. Swastikas, the Sieg Heil, Holocaust denial and even the Nazi Party have been illegal in Germany since the end of World War II, but neo-Nazis find ways to skirt the laws and remain visible. In August 2017, more than 500 neo-Nazis held a parade in Berlin to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the death of Nazi leader Rudolf Hess. They were met with triple the number of protesters, but their message continues to reach disenfranchised youth and adults who fear Germany has taken in too many immigrants and is losing its identity.

The ideology has proven particularly attractive to disenfranchised youth from the former East, said Dr. Harald Weilnboeck, a project leader at the Radicalization Awareness Network, which mentors and plans school curriculum for at-risk youth to prevent involvement with neo-Nazism and Islamist radicalization. The organization has doubled in size in the past three years and now has 22 full-time employees.

“There is active extremist recruitment off and online –– all over the place –– where vulnerable young people are,” Weilnboeck said. “The far-right goes into popular areas for kids –– soccer fields, schools and community hotspots and meet-up places –– and tries to recruit them young. It’s really turning into a serious problem.”

Recruiters are using social media, podcasts and popular pastimes like cooking and soccer to spark initial interest in lonely, needy youths, he said.

He said many of the swastikas Omari removes are done by middle-class youths and adults who are frustrated with German politics and are finding power in subversion.

“The whole society leans toward right-wing a bit, [it’s become] more polarized, just like in the U.S.,” Weilnboeck said.

Clemens Reichelt is one of Omari’s students and worries outsiders still associate Berlin with Hitler and the Holocaust.

“I think that many people believe that Germany is full of Nazis or stuff like that and when these people see swastikas in Berlin or all around Germany, this image gets confirmed,” he said. “Swastikas may have [represented] Germany in year 1945, but not in the 2000s.”

Max Kalnitz is a news editor and can be reached at max.kalnitz@ubspectrum.com and

@Max_Kalnitz.