Graffiti is applied to a meaningful stairwell
Between 1931 and 1934, a beautiful downtown post office was constructed in Reno. Built in an art deco style (zigzag moderne), it featured many swastikas, an arresting, symmetrical symbol. The Nazi movement was just gaining power in Germany.
Decades later, on the first day of the new year, century and millennium, three arsonists torched Temple Emanu-El in Reno. Forty-eight minutes into the day, according to a video tape system, a Molotov cocktail was thrown, igniting the temple doors. One of the perpetrators was wearing a shirt bearing a cross, profaning two religions at once.
There is nothing in either a cross or a swastika that denotes good or evil. They are neutral designs that are employed by good and bad people. The swastika has existed at least since the Bronze Age and has usually had a positive meaning, such as hope, luck or fertility, though the architect who designed the Reno post office—Frederic DeLongchamps—probably was drawing his inspiration from Native American art.
But the swastika, of course, became the symbol for Nazism, and its unauthorized use on walls or other surfaces is now normally treated as a hate crime. When swastikas were painted Oct. 13 on the walls of a University of Nevada, Reno stairwell that had been reserved for the self-expression of art students to use for graffiti and other forms of art, University Galleries put out a statement: “University Galleries firmly rejects the anti-Semitic and inhumane values such symbols express.” A gathering on Sunday to paint over the offending markings was scheduled.
But that Friday evening, without publicity, unhappy students and Art Department chair Rebekah Bogard decided not to wait for Sunday. They painted over the troublesome images. “I felt a responsibility because some of the students were really upset, so Friday evening we came in and did cover some of them over,” Bogard said.
Paradoxically, unpopular art was being removed from a site created to encourage student expression.
Once the swastikas had been covered up, the department went ahead with the Sunday paint party. Bogard said the event was still needed as an outlet, and a considerable crowd did gather. Some seemed almost disappointed that the swastikas had been removed, so they could not paint them over. One student brought a bag of spray paint cans.
The stairwell was originally designated for student expression a decade ago by instructor Michael Sarich, though campus officialdom reportedly painted it clean a couple of times before the department was able to get administrators to leave it alone for students to use.
Today’s harsh political climate was a concern for many of those in attendance, who linked outside developments with the stairwell and other disruptive events such as Charlottesville.
Buffalo and crow
At a pre-paint party news conference, Liberal Arts College Dean Debra Moddelmog said in a prepared statement, “I want to be clear what this gathering is not: It is not an effort to paint over or suggest that anti-Semitism and other forms of hate don’t exist in our society or on this campus. The Anti-Defamation League notes that anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. jumped 86 percent in the first quarter of 2017 compared to the same period last year. Other minority groups, from Latinos and Asians to Muslims and the LGBT community have also reported a spike in hate crimes directed at them over the last year and a half. … Our work didn’t begin here, and it doesn’t end here today—we are a place of education, and the College of Liberal Arts has a number of faculty and courses that examine the history or culture of hate movements, their consequences, and how such movements were resisted. … This is ongoing work.”
Earlier, she had said of the stairwell, “It’s a place for self-expression but when that expression is hateful, we need to replace it with expression that is hopeful or positive.”
The building’s galleries director, Paul Baker Prindle, said, “Hate has the ability to grow only in darkness.”
In her statement, Bogard said, “In my mind, the painting of the swastikas was an act of terrorism as the intent behind this was to intimidate and scare people and a call to violence.” She said she regretted that the patch work eliminated two of her favorite parts of the colorful walls—“the orange buffalo and the crow looking at his reflection in a worm-hole. But that is the nature of this space. It is constantly evolving and a place where students feel safe and free to express themselves.”
Chatting with visitors, art professor Howard Rosenberg said, “The worst thing you can do is paint them out. … Make them into something wonderful.” That did happen. Bogard said at the Friday evening session, swastikas were turned into a mosquito and a version of the Microsoft Windows logo.
There were reports that swastikas were painted in other UNR buildings, and also that one had been carved into a wall, but no confirmation of those reports.