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When Swastikas Started Popping Up In Their City, These Graffiti Artists Came Up With A Creative Solution

The Paintback project is answering messages of hate with love.

Screenshot via Legacy BLN/YouTube

Swastikas are regularly spray painted on playgrounds, scrawled on walls, doors, and floors across the United States, and in the case of University of Denver in May, drawn on six cars in one of the school’s parking lots. Now a clever and creative way of dealing with vandalism that uses this symbol of anti-Semitism and white supremacy has emerged from the land of its birth: Germany.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]We’ll respond with humor and love.[/quote]

For the past year, Paintback, a Berlin-based street art collective has been spray-painting flowers, insects, animals, and enormous Rubik’s cubes over swastikas around the city.

"It's not hard to come up with ideas," Klemens Reichelt a 17-year-old involved in the effort told The Local. "I like it because I think swastikas don't belong in Berlin — it's a city open to the world and I want to defend that."

The project began last year when a man entered Legacy BLN, a graffiti supply store owned by artist Ibo Omari. "He didn't look like a graffiti artist, so I asked him why he wanted them and he said he needed them to cover up a swastika that had been sprayed on a children's playground," Omari told the website. The man’s response shocked Omari because it had been nearly 20 years since he’d seen the symbol in public.

At the same time the alt-right movement has gained steam in the United States, white nationalists in Germany, angry over the influx of refugees, have stepped up their efforts as well. A report released last year by Amnesty International found that in Germany, “racist violent crimes against racial, ethnic and religious minorities increased by 87% from 693 crimes in 2013 to 1,295 crimes in 2015.”

Omari and another artist who was in the shop decided they’d help the man. “We’d long wondered how to respond to these hateful messages,” Omari told BBC News. “And then we said, ‘We’ll respond with humor and love.’”

Last year, they made the short video above so people around the world could see what they’re doing. Omari and his fellow artists keep their swastika-covering designs simple so that diverse group of kids and teens who participate in the shop’s activities can help. It’s been illegal to display swastikas or other Nazi symbols in Germany since the fall of the Third Reich. But, since last spring, Omari estimates that he and his fellow artists have covered up about 20 swastikas. “It doesn't happen that often but once is too many," he told The Local.

Omari said people in other cities and countries have borrowed the Paintback concept and are covering swastikas in their towns with art. Along with prosecuting vandals who deface public and private spaces on these shores with the symbol, perhaps even more street artists in the U.S. will be inspired by their peers in Germany. Then again: don’t you wish they’d never need to cover up a swastika in the first place?

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