Think of the swastika and chances are that what comes to mind is the murderous regime of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany.
But the symbol is at least 5,000 years old and is incorporated into Hindu, Buddhist and Jain iconography. Even today, in the Indian subcontinent and parts of Southeast Asia it is not uncommon to see the symbol painted on buildings and vehicles as a sign of good fortune.
It is this second meaning that a clothing company, KA Design, says it was trying to recapture when it recently launched a line of T-shirts on Teespring.com featuring its “new” swastika, emblazoned with rainbow colors and the words “love,” “peace” and “zen.”
In a video posted on its Facebook page on July 12, the company (tagline: “Questioning Boundaries”) says that for thousands of years, the swastika meant something positive: “But one day, Nazism. … They stigmatized the swastika forever.”
KA Design promised: “The swastika is coming back, together with Peace, together with Love, together with Respect, together with Freedom.”
(For more on the company’s rationale, you can see an interview here.)
Then (not surprisingly) came the backlash.
One person, referring to the Holocaust, posted a review on the company’s page: “If this is some kind of PR stunt, it’s not going your way. Tasteless, inconsiderate and disgusting! Extremely offensive to the 6 million who lost their lives!”
One reviewer said even if it was meant to be genuine, “there are some symbols and ideas that are too abhorrent to ever be considered for ‘rehabilitation’. That symbol led to and presided over so many innocent deaths of all races. it should be buried forever.”
Yet others expressed concern that the swastika was being conflated with the rainbow symbol of the LGBTQ community.
The story of the attempt to re-brand the swastika appeared in several newspapers in Israel and Arsen Ostrovsky, the executive director of the Israeli-Jewish Congress, denounced the company’s clothing line as “obscene and disgusting.”
However, there were a few supporters of the effort. Andrew Anglin, the founder of the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website, praised the shirts: “I have been trying to do this for years, and I am thankful that hippies are finally getting on-board with that particular project. … I endorse these shirts,” he wrote.
It wasn’t exactly the response KA Design had hoped for. The company responded to the burgeoning controversy first with an about-face, putting out a redesign that incorporated a red slash through the swastika. However, by Monday afternoon, a search on the Teespring.com page for the newly redesigned t-shirts returned only an error message.
On the company’s Facebook page was a post announcing that “Hatred and Nazism have won.
“We brought out the worst in people,” the message acknowledged. Included was an absolution of Teespring, which the post said “has nothing to do with this project. It is a beautiful company with the nicest people around. Leave all the Hate to us.”
As NPR’s Ailsa Chang reported last month, the swastika is one of several racially offensive trademarks applications being fielded by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.