In the 1960s Canadian artist and poet ManWoman decided to reclaim the swastika from the neo-Nazi crowd. Two hundred tattoos and a failed marriage later, he says he's making progress.
Photo by Janousz Meissner
[Editor's Note: ManWoman passed away on November 13, 2012, shortly after this interview was published. He was 74 when he died.]
Before World War II, the swastika was a sign of strength, luck, and other decidedly un-Nazi-like vibes. Unfortunately, it only takes one angry little man with a Chaplin mustache to ruin a perfectly nice symbol (and mustache, for that matter) for the whole world. Here we are, almost seven decades after the guy's death, and the swastika is still one of the most recognizable and viscerally despised emblems around.
ManWoman, a Canadian artist and poet, has been trying to reclaim the swastika from cue ball-headed bigots since the 1960s, when he was tasked with the mission via a series of powerful dreams. As he describes it, he fell into a trance and his soul "soared up into the Womb of the Sacred," where an old guy in white robes showed him the symbol and told him to redeem it. Two hundred swastika tattoos, a couple of near-beatdowns, and one failed marriage later, ManWoman's mission is finally starting to pay off. He has written a book, Gentle Swastika, Reclaiming the Innocence, was featured prominently in the 2010 film, My Swastika, and is now the unofficial grandfather of the Reclaim the Swastika movement.
And in case you were wondering, ManWoman is not transgender. The name was given to him by the same "dream people" who gave him his quest. It has been his legal name since 1971, but for some reason Zuck still kicked him off Facebook. You can call him "Manny" for short.
VICE: Can you tell me about the moment when you were given your mission to reclaim the swastika?
ManWoman: I had a whole year where I had all these experiences of my heart being flooded with love and of blowing up through this incredible swerving energy, up into what could only be described as "The Sacred." My spirit was totally liberated from my body, and it was this swirling vortex ,which in my later dreams—about 1967—started being represented by a white swastika. There was an old man who came up to me and he had long, white hair, a beard, and white clothes. He marked my throat with a white swastika and said that I needed to take this on as my mission and redeem the symbol. And the words were, "So that it would strike love into all hearts that beheld it."
Of course, my mum was a Polish immigrant and her sister and baby were put into Auschwitz at one point, so I grew up with all the usual prejudices against the swastika because of what it represented to us during the war. So I kinda choked on this mission. But I kept dreaming about little girls with skipping ropes covered in swastikas, waitresses in cafés wearing dresses covered in swastikas, and funny animals shaped like swastikas. And it was all so playful.
Sounds like it. So when did you discover the swastika was not actually shorthand for soulless evil?
Well, my mother thought I was having a nervous breakdown, and all my friends were kind of whispering behind my back. I kept saying, "The swastika's a sacred symbol." Then a friend of mine said, "Oh, I got this beadwork from the Apache Indians down in the southern states," and it had a swastika on it. Then another guy comes along and he says, "Oh, here's a girls' hockey team from Edmonton," [with swastikas on their uniforms]. His grandmother was one of the girls. And so I just started piecing the history of it together. I found out the Buddhists use it and the Hindus use it and all the North American Indians used it, and it just goes on and on.
OK. I get the mission now, but why the tattoos?
I got one tiny swastika tattoo on my baby finger in 1969, after I was having all these dreams. I thought, "Well, that's my one tattoo!" Then in 1970 I tattooed my hands because I kept dreaming that Hitler had taken the swastika from me and I was an ancient and had to restore it. So I did that and really, really freaked out my wife. And then I'd had dreams about my third eye waking up in a kind of mystical experience, so I started tattooing the third eye on my forehead. That was kind of the end of that marriage because it was just too shocking and too hard. Looking back, would I have done something different? I don't know, I don't know. Some people were calling me obsessed, and that might have been true, but for me I was obsessed in a good way.
Photo by Harry Kemball
So you felt the tattoos were necessary?
Oh yeah. Dream after dream after dream. I've got over 200 swastikas tattooed on my body. There are so many different versions of the swastika around the world from different cultures, so I had them all tattooed on my arms and chest and back.
Have you had any confrontations because of your tattoos?
Oh, man. I was in Venice Beach one time—"Muscle Beach"—where they're all pushing weights and stuff. All of a sudden I'm surrounded by three great big Jewish guys with muscles bulging out everywhere. They were mad. They looked at my arms and they were ready to rip me in three different directions. So I just started telling them about the history of the symbol and my mission and, lo and behold, I guess I've got a golden tongue, because they didn't kill me.
ManWoman says he got the dove-filled swastika on his back because he "was trying to create a swastika even [his] Jewish friends could love."
You've recently started to get more positive attention though, right?
There's I-don't-know-how-many thousands and thousands of people who connect with me about the swastika and the history. And now there's swastika blogs and all kinds of pages on Facebook and it's just taking off like crazy. So instead of getting the sand kicked in my face, it turns into people saying, "Thank you for doing this," and honoring me for toughing it out and being kind of the granddaddy of the movement.
And another thing: everybody wants me to tattoo a little tiny swastika on them! Well, I've never tattooed anyone, and now all of a sudden I've tattooed about 30 people with a little swastika, and some of these are very serious, top-of-the-line tattoo artists. But they just want a little token from me because they appreciate and admire what I've done.
Right now, I'm waiting for a guy to show up, his name's Alek Os Beck. He's a longboard racer . He's got a great big swastika tattooed on his chest but it's tipped up at an angle, so people immediately make assumptions. He's passing through Cranbrook and he wants me to modify his tattoo so it looks like more of a sacred swastika. I hope I'm up to the job.
So are you going to get any more swastika tattoos?
When I went to Europe, all these famous artists wanted to give me free tattoos and I just.. I'm 74. I'm done with tattoos. I did it for a purpose, because I was inspired by my dreams. But I'm not having those dreams now, I'm having different kinds of dreams. So it'd be pointless for me to keep it up, I think.
But your mission is coming to life—yay!
It's just been so magical and it's been supported by—you could call it "spirit" if you want, but it's been supported by inner forces beyond our knowledge.
I'm happy now that I have followed that path, because there are so many people who have joined forces with me. They're making my life very exciting right now.
Image by Tas Limur