Skin-Deep Symbolism

Posted inThe Daily Heller
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BERLIN (Reuters) – A Russian opera singer has pulled out of the Bayreuth opera festival over Nazi tattoos on his chest days before the start of the celebration of Richard Wagner’s works that was once popular with Third Reich leaders.

Evgeny Nikitin was cast as the Flying Dutchman in Wagner’s opera at the famous Bayreuth Festival in Germany—until German newspapers and television ran photos that revealed his bare chest covered with tattoos that “resemble symbols used by the Nazis.” One was clearly a swastika, which appears to be covered by a new tattoo in more recent pictures, while two others, the Todersrune or death rune (used by Nazis on the graves of fallen heroes and is more recently referred to as an upside down “peace sign”) and Tyr-Rune or battle rune (an upward arrow signifying leadership in early Nazi street battles), were still visible.

Before realizing his folly

After the cover-up. But note the other symbols.

“I had these tattoos done in my youth,” Nikitin said in a statement on the festival’s website. “It was a big mistake in my life and I wish I had never done it.”

Crow's Foot or Death Rune

Symbols and symbolism of the Nazi period—in fact, any period—have meaning and consequence. They continue to rile the senses. Whether or not Nikitin believes in their ideological significance or thinks they are just skin-deep youthful indiscretions (which I tend to believe they are), the impassioned responses to the swastika are edifying. However, the other two tattoos were ignored by all press reports, proving that journalists accepted the Reuters report without probing below the surface. Even a discussion of the alternative meanings of each symbol would have shed light on the complexity of symbols. The swastika as a non-Nazi symbol of good fortune, the Christian implications of the “broken cross,” a reference to the devil, and the arrow as, well, an arrow implying upward and forward motion.

Incidentally, a somewhat related report from July 26 further underscores the power of symbols to inflame passions:

Tyr- Rune

Even after angering an entire nation following a recent performance in France and being threatened with a potential lawsuit for her uncouth behavior, Madonna is standing firmly by her art.The Material Girl is defending her use of a swastika superimposed onto the face of France’s National Front leader Marine Le Pen in a video during her July 14 concert in Paris.Madonna told a Brazilian television station that the Nazi symbol – despite its controvery – represents her message about “the intolerance that we human beings have for one another,” according to the BBC.

.Steven Heller’s The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption? is available at