B.C. artist who tried to rehabilitate the swastika dies of cancer

ManWoman (Photo courtesy needlesandsins.com)A B.C. artist who dedicated his life to reclaiming the swastika from its association with Nazism and inked that commitment onto his entire body has died of cancer.

Patrick Charles Kemball, 74, was better known as ManWoman. Though not exactly a household name, the lifelong resident of Cranbrook, B.C., apparently counted actor Dan Aykroyd among his fans.

His friends mourned the passing this week of a "spiritual mystic, social challenger and loving member of the tattoo community ..." Condolences spread on Twitter and elsewhere on the web.

[ More Daily Brew: $10M grant not enough for 'rock star' scientist to brave Edmonton's winters ]

In an interview with CBC Radio West, Sioux Browning, past president of the Cranbrook and District Arts Council, remembered ManWoman as quite a character.

Blogger Shannon Larratt argued the friend he called "Manny" had succeeded in rescuing the swastika, an ancient symbol dating back at least 5,000 years and sacred to several religions, from its Nazi associations.

"If you see a swastika, that symbol of light and love, tattooed on someone, you can thank Manny," Larratt wrote in a blog post.

"All of the spiritual and geometric tattooing that is exploding today owes his efforts a great deal of credit and thanks. Although he was often unknown by those he helped transform both physically and spiritually, like some benevolent and hopeful puppetmaster bard, he touched almost all of us in one way or another, and was one of the most influential guides in this community."

In its tribute, the web site Needles and Sins reprinted a 2010 interview with ManWoman from Britain's Total Tattoo magazine. He talked about getting a "spiritual wake-up call" in the 1960s that turned him from a hotrod-loving small-town redneck into a man on a mission to reclaim the swastika from its link to Nazism and bring it back to its peaceful, sacred origins.

"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," he said.

"Then, later when I would dream about these events, it was always symbolized by the swastika."

ManWoman said he was shocked by that because his mother was Polish and her sister and niece spent time in Auschwitz concentration camp before the family was able to bribe guards and get them out.

"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.' "

The idea of tattooing swastikas on his skin also came to him in a dream in the sixties, he said.

"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."

ManWoman, who adopted that name after another dream where he envisioned himself as male and female in the same body, studied art at the University of British Columbia and Alberta College of Art in the 1950s and 1960s, and later also taught art.

His artwork would find its way into a number of collections in Canada and abroad. In 2002 he received an Award of Excellence from Alberta's Lieutenant Governor.

Not surprisingly, ManWoman said he had to deal with a lot of angry reaction to his swastika tattoos.

"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," he told Total Tattoo.

"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.' "

According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the swastika had been a symbol of good luck in Europe but after the First World War was adopted by far-right German nationalist movements, including the Nazis, as a symbol of the racially pure "Aryan" state.

"A potent symbol intended to elicit pride among Aryans, the swastika also struck terror into Jews and others deemed enemies of Nazi Germany," the museum says in its history of the symbol.

"Despite its origins, the swastika has become so widely associated with Nazi Germany that contemporary uses frequently incite controversy."

[ Y! Awards: Dark Knight shooting story year's most memorable ]

But people like ManWoman have tried to reclaim the swastika. It's probably in vain, at least until a period of centuries puts some distance between humanity and the memory of the Nazi nightmare.