It was used, rather controversially, by some punk musicians in the 70's as a counterpoint to hippie idealism — but how would you feel now if you saw swastikas on t-shirts worn by teenagers, apparently stripped of any meaning much like a Che Guevara head?
Furthermore, how would you react to the sight of a store in a Bangkok, Thailand shopping mall — that usual space of blandly commercial aesthetics — that sold t-shirts of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler's head superimposed onto the bodies of Western mascots and icons, such as Ronald McDonald, even Shepard Fairey's iconic "HOPE" poster?
This story has sporadically seen attention in several Western news outlets throughout last year, most recently receiving ink from British rag the Daily Mail. Known as Seven Star, the store is also a showcase for the cartooning skills of its proprietor, Hut, who according to the blog Tasty Thailand thinks the designs look "cool." This is somewhat different from the Daily Mail's interpretation, which depending on your view unpacks the humor or imposes meanings that weren't previously there: "Hitler [is turned into] into nothing more than a cartoon figure. A figure of fun and derision — a buffoonish Ronald McDonald-esque character or a roly-poly Tellytubby. And that’s how he should be thought of as. A ridiculous character that, in the modern world, would hopefully not be allowed to survive very long."
As the world of internet memes, as well as the unforgettable musical sabotage in the classic 1967 film The Producers, have shown, attempts to bar the historical legacy of Hitler and the Nazis from the realm of humor are futile and could even let more people forget about those atrocities. Hut's semiotic experiments, and the placement of Hitler's head on Colonel Sanders's body in the fried-chicken restaurant mentioned by the Daily Mail, also draw a connection between the iconography of capitalist globalization and that of fascism in a way that some of us lefties might find ... interesting.
More disturbing — and worthy of deeper investigation than just quoting Westerners' tweets, as the author of the Tasty Thailand post seems to have done — is the arbitrary use of swastikas in events such as a sport day in Chiang Mai, where high school students showed up in homemade Nazi uniforms. Following outcries from all over the world, teachers at the schools apologized for the students. "Most young Thais seemingly know precious little about the Nazis and their crimes beyond their eye-catching pageantry. And so they are drawn to Hitler and his regime’s hallucinogenic visual propaganda," wrote Tibor Krausz at CNN Travel.
The hypnotism of the symbol might run deeper than the mid-20th century, however. Its popularity throughout Asia, with recent sightings in Taiwan, South Korea, India, and Japan might derive from its origins, which go as far back as Indus Valley Civilizations. It also has importance to Buddhism, Hinduism, as well as more recent traditions, such as Cao Dai and Falun Gong. So perhaps, more than a declaration of Nazi sympathies, this just a reclaiming of an ancient icon — or an acknowledgment of the ironies around its use.