I learned from Colin Dale this afternoon that ManWoman passed away peacefully this morning after a bout with terminal cancer. Manny was an artist and poet but best known for his work reclaiming the "gentle swastika." Manny was such a bright light, and while I'm saddened by the news, I also had to smile thinking of our brief time together and all the experiences he shared and giggles we had over them. He will be deeply missed by so many.
Shannon of BMEzine.com posted his tribute to ManWoman today and included this video below, in which Manny offers his "final thoughts" less than ten days ago. The whole video is beautiful but ends powerfully on these words:
Find the gift that is in you. You're in this world as a gift of god to this world, so get busy doing it!I'm on it, Manny!
For more on his thoughts about art, spirituality and the swastika, I'm posting my Q&A with ManWoman, which took place at the Traditional Tattoo and World Culture Festival in Ireland in 2010, and was published in the October 2010 issue of the UK's Total Tattoo magazine. Find it below the video (after the jump).
Interview with ManWoman ...
ManWoman, born Patrick Charles Kemball in a small town in British Columbia, had a "spiritual wake-up call" in the 1960s that transformed him from "a redneck Canadian who liked hotrods" into a man whose mission it is to reclaim the swastika from its Nazi taint back to its peaceful, sacred origins. His words and art are respected by many around the world for their message of love and acceptance, particularly in the tattoo community because so much of that message has been expressed through ManWoman's extensive tattooing. At the Traditional Tattoo & World Culture Festival, many attendees said that they came particularly to hear ManWoman speak about the reclamation. In this interview, he reflects on his life-long experiences and expresses gratitude for having such an audience.
Let's start from the very beginning. How did you come to this path you're on now?
Well, the last thing I would have thought is that I'd be doing what I'm doing. I had a spontaneous mystical awakening, my spirit soared through a vortex of energy, and I melted into god and the sacred, and peace and joy, and incredible power. Then, later when I would dream about these events, it was always symbolized by the swastika. That was shocking to me because my mom was a Polish immigrant and her sister and her [sister's] baby were put in Auschwitz. They managed to get out because their father took every penny and paid off the guards to get them out, which he could do because they weren't Jewish, just farmers. So, I grew up with the typical prejudice against the symbol because of Hitler and the war, but my dreams kept telling me, "This is a sacred sign, you need to redeem this symbol".
Why chose tattooing as the medium to spread your message?
I chose tattooing because, in my dreams, I had that on me [points to a tattoo on his arm] and so I tattooed it on. Pretty soon I had them all over my hands. My first wife was pretty upset about it. She worried that we wouldn't be able to pay the rent and feed the kids because I had swastikas tattooed all over my hands. We knew a guy who had Tasmanian Devils tattooed on his hands and he had skin from his ass grafted to the back of his hands so he could get a job. This was back in the late sixties.
What were you doing for work at that time?
I was teaching art. I had gone to art school and then I was teaching art.
Where did the name ManWoman come from?
For a long time, I was dreaming that I was both male and female in the same body, and people would come up to me and call me ManWoman. That went on for about three years. Then in 1967, I decided that I was going to be ManWoman. I started signing my paintings ManWoman, and by 1971, I had it changed legally. Both my parents called me ManWoman before they died.
When you had these dreams and awakening, do you think there was a catalyst for that?
Sitting in front of a painting all day long is a meditation. I just didn't realize it then. I started feeling really stiff like I couldn't move when I was sitting looking at my art, and I didn't really know what was going on, but I was actually going into a trance. Then I went into this total trance, and this spiritual energy went wooosh and shot me into the cosmos. Scared the hell out of me. I thought I was dying, and I wasn't ready to go! [laughs]
When I first started to wake up, I discovered a guy named Thomas Merton, who was a Trappist monk. I was quite amazed by him because, amongst the Catholics, he was the only one who ever made any sense to me; he was writing about deeper experiences. I then applied to the monastery and was told, "Yeah, we'll take you but you have to give up art." I thought, "So I'm going to give up talking. I'm going to give up sex, and now I have to give up art? No way!"
Was the monastic life appealing in that meditative sense?
It was appealing because I felt a calling. I was so disillusioned with the world. You know when people have a house with a little picket fence around them? I used to call them "cemetery plots". I never wanted to have that life. I detested it.
Here I was having this awakening and I couldn't talk to anyone because they didn't understand. People would ask, "Why are you leaving the church? What about Jesus? How could you break up the tradition of the family?" It scared my parents, wife and friends. My friends were whispering to my wife that I had gone over the edge. My wife finally said, "Let's go talk to the priest, just talk to him". So I went to the priest and told him that my spirit was soaring up through this vortex and melting into god, and my heart was bursting with flames of love, and I was having this awakening. He said to me, "You know, my son, I'm afraid I have to be the one to tell you this but you're insane and you should go turn yourself in". This asshole is trying to get me to be part of his religion but could not possibly have a spiritual experience because he is so hemmed in with dogmas and doctrines, and layers and layers of stuff that has nothing to do with inner spirit awakening. I was having all these meaningful experiences, and he had no reference point to what was happening to me. So I said to him, "But what about St Teresa of Avila? What about St. John on the cross? I read their stories and it seems that my story is similar". He said, "Well, then you should come back to the church". I thought that I might as well dig a grave, jump in, and shovel it back on top of me. I don't mean to offend anybody, but what a load of crap!
Well, it's not just the Catholics who feel this way?
Oh, I also look at the Muslims, the Hindus, all these religions and they are way overdue to disintegrate. Just look at all the wars around the world. We need something fresh. That's what was pouring into me when I was having my visions.
If you could create an organized religion, what would it be about?
It's personal. A personal awakening, a personal connection to the sacred. Once it becomes institutionalized, it gets lost. I think it should come through art and music and poetry. It should never go into rules and regulations.
It's interesting because what we've been talking about, in terms of your awakening, is beauty, light and love. But in representing this through the swastika, you're met with a lot of negativity. How do you deal with that?
I feel sorry about the many people were lost or lost loved ones in the concentration camps, or veterans who died fighting the Nazis in the war. These people carry a lot of hatred for the symbol, and I don't know what to say to them except, "You know what, things change, times change, and why let Hitler have the final victory in killing that symbol forever when it has 10,000 years of history that predated him". The swastika has been the mark of old, old religions. In paganism, it was the mark about the vortex of creativity that keeps this whole world going and its endless incarnations. Everything is about movement. You're sitting still, and I'm sitting still, but there are incredible spinning molecules; there's just this dance going on around us. How can we freeze-dry that, put it in a box and feed it to people? How can we do that when it's already inside of us all? We need to recognize that we are all spiritual.
People come up to me, especially back home in Canada, and ask, "Manny, are you spiritual?" I say, "Everyone is spiritual!" But they have a preconceived idea of what is spiritual: you have to be a new agey person and do all this woowoo stuff in order to prove that you're spiritual. I say absolutely not because this body is just a tiny part of me, and the real me has never been born and will never die and is full of vitality and sacredness. So that's the part that I commune with, and when I do, everyone thinks I'm a nut case.
Not everyone thinks you're a nut case. Look how many young people have cone to this small town in Ireland to meet you and hear you speak. How do you feel about that?
I feel great! [laughs] In fact, the artists, when they were arriving the day before, they individually came up to me and said, "I'm here because you are here". What a blessing this is! It's such a blessing that I was given this mission by my dreams to restore the symbol. For so many years, I thought I was the only one. I was doing this because it was my spiritual journey. I had no hopes that anything would really start happening in my lifetime. Now look around. Just look at how it has gone through the tattoo world. Half of the artists who have shown up here are completely covered in swastika tattoos.
When do you think this movement really began to happen in the community?
It started off with being interviewed by V. Vale for ReSearch magazine, "Modern Primitives," back in 1989. I had went down to San Francisco on vacation, and I thought that I should go see Lyle Tuttle because I heard about him. He tattooed Janis Joplin and had this tattoo museum. I went in there and he saw me and said, "Oh, I gotta take pictures of you for my museum". Then when V. Vale was interviewing Lyle for "Modern Primitives", he started talking about this guy up in Canada who's totally tattooed in swastikas. So the next day, she called me and we were on the phone for five hours, and I ended up in that magazine. That was such a blessing. I owe that to Lyle. That just opened up an audience to me that hadn't been there. Then everywhere I went, every time I'd go to a tattoo studio, they'd whip out "Modern Primitives" and ask me to sign it and offer me free tattoos.
I've had to say that I'm done with tattoos because so many people want to tattoo me just so they can say that they did.
So you're done with getting tattoos completely?
Well, you see I was dreaming about these tattoos that I have. I'm covered with skulls on my chest as well. That's about the death of the ego and transformation of false self--the self I thought was me but wasn't. I had to leave that person behind to expand into the bigger version of who I am.
Now, I'm not dreaming about the tattoos anymore. It would be like going back to planting seeds when you're already in full bloom.
Who did most of your tattoos?
Most of my tattoos were done by a guy named Sudsy in Cranbrook, British Columbia in the Rocky Mountains. He was a biker learning to tattoo.
What was the reaction by tattooists when you asked them for swastika tattoos?
Fat Rick, who did my first tattoos said, "I admire your trip" and when I asked him to do my third-eye tattoo he told me that the policy of the studio was not to tattoo faces because they didn't want people coming back and saying they were scarred for life. At the time, I was painting the third-eye on my forehead, so he said, "If you're still painting it on a year from now, I'll do it on you." A year later I came back and he tattooed it. And that was wisdom from Fat Rick! That was really ethical of him. Today I meet kids who tell me they want a swastika tattooed on their face. I tell them that they might want to think about that. I say paint it on, wear it at work, wear it at the bar, wear it to your grandmother's birthday, everywhere and then see if you can live with that.
What has been your own biggest difficulty having swastika tattoos?
Well, when I went through security at Chicago airport to fly into Dublin, there was a young woman there who was just tearing a strip off me. She said that I shouldn't be exposing my arms in public and that I was scaring everybody. I said, "There's a different meaning to this symbol than you think." Then she started talking to the other security guards and I thought, "I could actually miss my plane." So rather than challenge her, which I would've done if she weren't wearing that uniform, I said, "You're making a big assumption about me. Why don't you go online and look it up." Then I walked away as my stuff had already gone through the scanner and I was free to go. But she was in my face screaming at me.
You must get that a lot?
I do. It is a sacrifice because some people really freak out because of their judgments about the swastika.
It's just so tainted by its Nazi association. There are Holocaust survivors living today for whom the swastika could mean nothing else. Have you ever met anyone who was directly impacted by the Holocaust?
Yes, I have. About a year ago I was at a health spa in Glen Ivy, California where my men's group was having our big annual meeting. We were sitting in the hot springs with the water bubbling all around and all of a sudden this little bony hand comes over the railing, and this old, old lady who must've been close to ninety pointed at my arms and said, "They told us children we were going to a party when they put us in Auschwitz." And I thought, "Oh my god, how am I going to explain to this lady that what I'm doing has no connection at all?" She just went into this really sad place and I felt bad. What do you say to someone like her? I just told her that it didn't have anything to do with that. How do you tell someone in 25 words or less, in a two-minute encounter, about the incredible beauty and sacredness of this symbol? A symbol that is has been used by Hindus, Buddhists, Pagans and ancient cultures as the most sacred symbol of blessing and auspiciousness. I was in India last year, and you can't go anywhere there without seeing it. It's everywhere.
The symbol appears in many cultures throughout history. Why do you think it keeps appearing in so many different times and places?
It's because it's a part of the archetypes of the inner foundations of the mind. There are universal symbols; like Karl Yung said, "If you slice through every religion there are universal archetypes: death, rebirth, the sacred mother giving birth to the divine child. And guess what pours through my dreams night after night? It's the archetypes but totally free from any organized religion. I see my duty as an artist and poet to refresh these archetypes. They're not going to change but they need to come out in a new form that we can relate to differently. When I see all these young people taking the swastika and playing with it, dancing with it, and making it into what it really is, it's just amazing. I feel like crying because I'm so excited. I come here and there are all these guys with their heads shaved and swastika tattoos on their faces, and it's like my dream is coming true. I better be careful what I dream of!