For a lot of New Zealanders, the roar of fleeting motorbikes and a glimpse of red and white patches sewn to thick leather jackets will be the only interaction we have with our nation’s largest and most violent street gang. The Mongrel Mob—whose name is believed to have originated from the moment a judge labelled a group of young men “mongrels” in court—is notorious for its outlaw way of life.
Despite its founding members being mainly European youth from the Hawke’s Bay and Wellington, the gang is now heavily dominated by Māori. But what may get you scratching your head is why this minority-led gang is so obsessed with Nazi iconography. From their “Seig Heil” salute, where they raise their outstretched right arm—yes, the one Nazis used to signal obedience to Adolf Hitler—to swastikas tattooed over bodies and plastered across patches, the group isn’t afraid to incorporate symbols that have long been deemed taboo.
VICE spoke with Poots Kani, a patched Mongrel Mob member, about why one of the biggest Māori organisations in the world still uses symbols that derive from white supremacy.
Kani has lived in Wairoa and around the Hawke’s Bay, an area rife with gang affiliation, all his life. He tells me he has “always been a supporter of the Mighty Mongrel Mob”, but he only decided to join two years ago when a more constructive chapter emerged. “I went through a bit of a rough patch with life but then I heard the chapter came out with a new vision, and it sounded more positive, so I thought I got to be a part of that,” he explains. “There’s a big anti-P and family-first focus now.”
Mongrel Mob members, alongside other gangs, have publicly advocated for a change in gang culture in recent years. Some say the attempt to move away from violent crime and focus more on eliminating domestic violence and drug abuse is a result of the group’s ageing demographic. Kani is nearly 28-years-old. In the 1970s that would have made him among the gang's oldest members, but today he is considered young. Older men, who according to the data are less likely to commit crimes, dominate the tone of the hierarchical organisation. But regardless of the new chapter, the majority of Mongrel Mob members aren’t willing to let go of their Nazi symbolism.
Kani isn’t wrong when he says that ever since World War II, anything to do with Nazi Germany has “pissed people off”. You’ll usually find the symbols tied to that horrific time in the history books or attached to what are now labelled as hate crimes. But in the late 1960s, the Mongrel Mob adopted symbols that were already associated with incredible hate and anguish. They saw something as heinous as the swastika as the ultimate sign of mongrelism. All the groundwork had been done by Nazis: the Mongrel Mob “pissed people off” just by using it.
“The swastika was something people hated, and anything to do with insulting people, yeah the Mongrel Mob was all about it,” Kani explains. He assures me that wearing the swastika or doing the salute is not about being pro-Nazi, it’s about being anti-society and offending the Crown. He says the group wanted to fire back and offend a system they believed treated them unfairly.
“Growing up all I have ever known is the Mongrel Mob and the swastika and so I always put the two together. It has never been about anything else,” he said. “I have six swastika tattoos and all that comes to my mind when I see them is the Mighty Mongrel Mob.”
The Mongrel Mob’s detachment from the origins of Nazi symbolism was made clear in Napier District Court in 2011. An associate to the gang was arrested for disorderly behaviour after screaming the words “Sieg Heil” and other abuse at police on New Year's Eve. But when the judge quizzed him about what the phrase actually meant, he insisted it was “just another way of saying hi to the bros".
In German, the phrase “Seig Heil” translates to “hail victory”. When asked if he resonated with that meaning despite opposing the historical baggage, Kani replied: “Yeah, hard.” “Because we are always winning and we are the best. If I went to war with my patch and that, I would probably yell that in the battle.”
Being mistaken for a Nazi, or supporting Nazi Germany, would have to be up there with one of the most offensive misunderstandings in the modern world. But this doesn’t bother Kani much at all. “I’d probably just go whoof at them and let them think what they like eh. Yeah, I am not too concerned about what they think, but if I piss them off, that’s a bonus.”
The swastika and the "Seig Heil" salute aren’t the only symbols Mongrel Mob members hope will cause offence. The patch’s main emblem is a British bulldog, which can sometimes be seen wearing a Stahlhelm, the distinctive German steel helmet. Kani tells me “the British Bulldog wearing a German war helmet should be the biggest insult ever” because the two countries brutally fought each other in World War I and II, and the bloody history is still raw in the public’s memory.
Ironically, over the years it appears the gang has become territorial over the borrowed symbols. Kani says the Stormtroopers are the only other gang in New Zealand he knows that use the same "Seig Heil" salute. But despite being allies, sharing doesn’t sit well with him. “They are not us. They are not the best. I don't agree with them using the same salute, I think they should go and get their own. We have been here longer,” he said. “Yeah, if I see one of them doing it I’d probably do something about it.”
Before Nazi Germany, the swastika was—and still is—an ancient icon that stands for divinity and spirituality in religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Now, New Zealand's largest gang claim that same icon symbolises mongrelism and the Mongrel Mob as a whole.
*An earlier version of this article misstated the name of Poots Kani's Mongrel Mob chapter. It has since been corrected.