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Berlin Teens Are Transforming Hateful Swastikas Into Street Art As Part of #PaintBack

A new initiative called #PaintBack aims to do more than just paint over Nazi graffiti; they work to transform it into art. “We hope to see more people peacefully claim back their neighborhoods and contribute to building strong, open-minded, and colorful communities,” said Victoria Tschirch, the co-founder of Die Kulturellen Erben (The Cultural Heritage).

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Back in the spring, Tschirch received a call from a concerned citizen about a swastika that had been graffiti’d on a local wall. She was intending to arrange for its cleanup, but Die Kulturellen Erben co-founder and street artist Ibo Omari, who was born in Europe to Lebanese and Turkish parents, said he and a friend would handle it. “We said we are going to take care of it — don’t spend any money, don’t get your hands dirty,” Omari told The Verge. “So we went there and made something beautiful out of it.”

Omari and his friend transformed that initial swastika into a mosquito, but designs since then have included four-leaf clovers, houses, owls, Rubik’s cubes, and more. The movement has since spread out from Berlin, with hundreds of posts on Instagram.

Omari also hosts graffiti workshops at Die kulturellen Erben, so that young street artists can learn to easily alter the swastikas with templates and training. “We wanted to answer with love and happiness,” he told The Verge, “so that young people can relate to it…We take their ugly message and make something beautiful out of it.”

However, the group is careful to get permission from the city before spray-painting over the swastikas. It is illegal to spray paint a public building in Berlin without permission, even if somebody else has already defaced it.

Omari and Tschirch both believe that the move to reclaim streets from Nazi propaganda is especially urgent now. Like the United States, Germany has seen a recent surge in far-right activity. Since more than a million refugees have joined the country, xenophobia has been on the rise. “It’s strange that in 20 years of integration and politics, people still feel scared by foreigners. That is unacceptable to us,” said Omari. “People are manipulated by fear,” Tschirch said. “They fear the unknown and they fear that someone could possibly take something away from them.”

Honestly, just getting rid of a Nazi symbol is plenty enough. But I do love that PaintBack is helping young people to reclaim their neighborhoods as their own, by painting over hate with clever, creative artwork. In place of hate, they’re not just restoring the status quo; they’re making something better than before – and that’s a beautiful metaphor for political progress.

(Via The Verge, CityLab, and Al Jazeera English; image via screengrab)

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