An interview with the man who turns Swastikas into flowers, fruits, and insects.
When he heard that Swastikas had been painted on a children’s playground in his neighbourhood in early 2016, Ibo Omari picked up his spray paint. The fight is as personal as it is urgent. Having been born to parents fleeing a war-torn Lebanon, Omari recognises the value of a welcoming community to Berlin’s new immigrants and refugees. Now the owner of a paint shop in Berlin’s Schöneberg district, Omari wanted not simply to erase the symbol of hate, but to transform it. It became a flower. Then it became a movement. His efforts have been documented in The Verge, The New York Times, and the Huffington Post. #PaintBack, started by his NGO Die kulturellen Erben (The Cultural Heritage), responds to hate with love and teaches young graffiti artists how to reclaim their neighbourhood from Germany’s growing nationalism.
In November 2017, I sat down with Omari in his paint shop in Berlin to discuss German racism, the art market, and gentrification.
How did you begin painting over Swastikas?
It was because there was a father who came to the store. He lived in the next street and he went to a children's playground. Afterwards, he came here to buy two cans and reported to us that there was a Swastika that he wanted to paint over. I explained to him that we have an NGO [The Cultural Heritage], that we are happy to help you and you don't have to spend money, just show it to me. I thought it was a small Swastika, but when I went there it was a large Swastika with three colours: white, red, and black. Because we are from Schoneberg and we are who we are [refugees and immigrants], we took this personally, but we did not want to answer with anger. This would make too much out of it. But we wanted to make sure that the Nazi gets the answer.
We thought about how. How could we restructure their form? Because we wanted him to get the answer and show people, we thought it would be best if we documented it. It was never meant to be international or whatever. Not even for Schöneberg. It was just for this one spot.
But it grew…
We didn't meet and say, "Oh, we have a project." But two weeks later there was another Swastika in the park. The security guys came up to us, asking if we could beautify it again.
There are a lot of Swastikas in Germany. It is subconsciously a very racist country.
So everywhere when people are alone, especially in elevators in the east part, you see a lot of Swastikas. But we were not interested in the small ones. We wanted to find the big ugly ones, so it looks better when we beautify the Swastika. It took a lot of time because we are an NGO and want to make it right. So if I do it, I don't want to motivate others do something illegal just to get good marketing. This was never meant to be an advertisement. The main idea was to activate the youngsters here in our hood, because I'm old now; for them [at 36] I'm considered old. The question is how can I motivate them in the first place to get active, not to be ignorant when they see shit like this; and, in the second place, to make them aware that this is not graffiti. This has no ties with graffiti. Graffiti is absolutely against what this sign stands for.
What is graffiti and street art?
You have to understand, street art, graffiti, you really have to be careful about what you're talking about. Street art is a global category, which is much broader, wider than graffiti. Street art is when you juggle balls on the street or breakdance on the street. Street art: art on the street.
"Street art," the name, was invented by people who don't understand graffiti and see graffiti as an ugly tag. It was marketing, to make graffiti into an art form.
The Germans have a good saying, "Art comes from skill." So if you do something--whatever you do, if you juggle, you paint, you dance—if you do it on the street, then it becomes street art. But this is not the definition of what you mean with street art. This label was given to graffiti in the early nineties to make art understandable for the majority of the people who see a difference between a tag and a piece, but not graffiti and art, established art.
Do you think that what's called street art is viewed as being lesser to what you might find in a gallery?
In general, yes. I have respect for any artist and for any art. The moment you start ranking art by class is when you show your true face. I can only rank the technique, the skill, the hours spent to make this, but this is not a guarantee that it is better. This is art. It's difficult. And because it's something very subjective, I find it very difficult to say one category is inferior to another. Or to say that street art is less or better. What I say is this: art should always be relevant to the people and its environment. Art should always have something to do with the environment it is set in. You can't teach art in a school.
People that study art, their goal is to make money with this craft. In graffiti, 99% of the people who have mastered this skill and couldn't make money with it, they don't. They are very bad business people, but they are artists even if people don't recognise that.
So how do you learn it?
On the street, by living it. You live art. When it become specific, you exclude others who don't fit that criteria of membership: qualifications, etc. This is against art. Art is freedom of expression. The soul you put into it. The level of innovation and new creativity.
Do you think graffiti must be separate from the market?
It depends on how stubborn and how narrow-minded you are. This is a craft not only for money and not only for art. It can be both. But there is a very thin line. There are even fascistic ways of seeing it, style and nothing else, which Berlin tends to be.
How so? Give me an example.
I attended a community meeting yesterday where the topic was "art or commerce." At the end of the meeting they agreed that art is commerce.
They can't be separate?
There were no artists there. And only me and another guy stood up and asked how could they have the audacity to decide what art is if none of them is an artist? And they decided on how to tie art to the real estate market—they don't even feel ashamed because it is accepted.
How do you fight it?
We came here three years ago and our aim was to reclaim territory. Most of our cultural sites got lost because nobody cared for them and nobody knew the history.
For three years, I've been working with my NGO, trying to persuade the responsible people here in this community not to give away projects to people that are not from this neighbourhood to make this neighbourhood, as they say, "better." Better for whom? Because if you make it more commercial its good for the merchants. If you make it arty, more attractive for people who find art galleries attractive, the area will be more pricey. Money loves two things: first, real-estate; and second, art. In this order. And the galleries are both. It is wrong to prioritize commerce, instead of the people, the culture that is already there and led all you guys to come here in the first place. Respect is the least they can give, but they need to appreciate the grown structure that has been there and try to connect and not just consume.
Berlin, if anything, is a city of change. What has this meant for art in the community?
Berlin had a tough history, and Berlin suffered a lot. Shit is a good nurturing ground and we had a lot of shit. Because people survived the shit, they learned to live with one another. The zeitgeist is shifting; we know [politics] is going right. But not that right; we are here, we still live, and as long as I'm here I'm not going to let that happen.
This is the basis of graffiti. Graffiti is not a standalone entity. Graffiti has always been a part of a culture and politics.