Reclaiming a Symbol

Tattoo artist Guido Baldini revisits the origins of the swastika

Symbology is a tricky sub-genre of art, particularly when symbols are re-inscribed to mean entirely different things. Take for instance those characteristic white robes and pointed hats, worn by the Ku Klux Klan, which came to symbolize white supremacy in the South. While terrifying to many in the US, these costumes closely resemble the whirling dervishes of the Middle East, the Sufi mystics who dance to get closer to God.

The most controversial symbol may be the swastika—the equilateral cross of Hindu/Buddhist property, reintroduced as the unmistakable symbol of the Nazi party. Hitler may not have won his war, yet the meaning of this simple whirling cross has been distorted in such a way that it's difficult to separate hope from fear, the intention misconstrued by oppression. Even the word 'swastika' has lost its provenance. Originally from the Sanskrit word "svastika"—meaning auspiciousness and self-realization. For linguistic nerds, the prefix "su" means "well" or "good," while "asti" means "to be," therefore "suasti" means "well-being." The suffix "ka" intensifies the meaning in such a way that "swastika" can be translated as either "that which is associated with well-being" or "thing that is auspicious."

With the opening of his show Tales of the Whirling Log and Auspicious Marks on Canvas, local tattoo artist Guido Baldini hopes to retell the story of the swastika based on its original intentions. Baldini, who grew up in Italy, originally happened upon the symbol through the subculture of tattoo and underground art. "It's full of controversy," he told me recently, "but people have forgotten that it's also a very holy symbol, and my hope is for people to rediscover how beautiful the swastika symbol really is."

Pore through the historical archives of various cultures, and you are likely to find the swastika just about everywhere: on surfboards from a company in LA, on furniture made by the Pennsylvania Amish, decorating shoulder patches of the 45th Infantry Division. In Navajo culture, the swastika is known as the "whirling log" and, for many years, was associated with the hero tale of an outcast man who takes a journey down the San Juan River in search of peace and security. Along the way, he meets the deities of the four elements and arrives at the confluence of the Colorado River, where he encounters a Yei healer sitting on a whirling log. He learns many things from this healer and takes his new knowledge back to his people.

Though the symbol was eventually replaced by the Zia sun symbol in the wake of Nazi oppression, the swastika once featured prominently in New Mexico iconography, appearing on all highway signs and state flags, as well as on the logo of New Mexico State University's yearbook. Even today, you can still find spoons, coins and medallions engraved with the symbol in most local antique shops. As Baldini explains, this symbol is incredibly universal.

His collection is an interplay of various mediums, including henna, pen and ink, and graphic overlay. And it works. Baldini's disparate techniques coexist, lending a certain depth of character to the iconography of each piece. An animal skull springs forth from a heavily detailed background of turquoise and ocher stenciling. A henna-stenciled Hanuman cunningly leers from a highly detailed floral pattern; the face of Chief Joseph is replaced by human bones. And subtly apparent in each work is the whirling form of the swastika.  

Symbols are the evidence left behind by those with stories to tell—messages to antecedents and history, many told through simple tag marks on walls. Above all else, Baldini's work is a testament to the subtlety of meaning and the importance of rediscovering the intention of art.

Tales of the Whirling Log and Auspicious Marks on Canvas
Through May 31
Body of Santa Fe
333 W Cordova Road

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