Removed graffiti was a harmless tribute, not neo-Nazi symbolism, say friends

A resident of St. John's spotted symbols used by white supremacists and asked the City to get rid of them. But the symbols meant something entirely different to the artist.

88 is often used by white supremacists, but youth say it was used in mural as harmless tribute

The number "88," which stands for "heil Hitler," was discovered on a downtown wall that normally features non-offensive street art. (Submitted by Joy Hecht)

The City of St. John's painted over a flurry of 88s on a graffiti mural last week amid complaints that it was anti-Semitic symbolism, but local youth say it was actually a memorial for a friend who had died young.

Joy Hecht was out for a weekend stroll in the residential area near George Street in St. John's, when her friend pointed at the mural on the wall behind the stairs leading from Carter's Hill Place to Livingstone Street.

The number 88 had been scrawled all around the word "Sketch."

Her friend recognized 88 as a neo-Nazi symbol meaning "HH" for "heil Hitler," used by white supremacists. H is the eighth letter of the alphabet.

The city responded swiftly, and workers made the call to leave the rest of the graffiti intact — a decision that Hecht thinks sends a strong message. (Submitted by Joy Hecht)

"I was taken aback. You know, there are so few Jews in this town," said Hecht. "It seemed bizarre."

Hecht notified the city, and Coun. Maggie Burton's office sent workers to cover the markings the next day. They covered the 88s and left the non-offensive markings intact.

Then the messages started.

Mural was a tribute

After CBC News published a story about the graffiti Monday morning, Hecht and Burton began receiving messages from local youth saying the mural was a tribute to Justin O'Brien, who died in June a few days before his 25th birthday, and that 88 was O'Brien's favourite number.

"It's literally just his lucky number," said O'Brien's friend Jess Westcott. "In no way does it mean what it is being portrayed to mean now."

She said O'Brien was known for drinking Big 8 pop in high school and he became known as Big 8. That became 88 as he got older, she said.

"It's how we knew him, everything was 88," she said. "If I got a text message from a weird number and it just said, '88,' I would know it was him."

Westcott kept this from O'Brien's funeral. (Submitted by Jess Westcott)

Westcott said a friend of O'Brien's left his wake early to paint the mural. 

"Was he supposed to research what the number 88 meant to everyone in the world?" she said, adding that she didn't know 88 held any significance until Monday morning.

"It's a grey area, nothing is black and white. The number 12 could mean something different than it does to me, but it's my lucky number."

A misunderstanding

"Clearly this is a misunderstanding on both sides," Hecht said. "We saw a message that has a meaning as neo-Nazi symbolism."

Hecht said she tried to find out who had put up the numbers and asked Choices for Youth, who operate nearby, but they told her they had no idea. 

Jess Westcott posted this picture of the mural to her Instagram account on June 15. (Submitted by Jess Westcott)

"If somebody posts something that has neo Nazi significance, even if that's totally not what they meant by it, which it would appear in this case that it's not, it probably still has to be painted over because the negative meaning of it is so much worse than the positive meaning."

Choices For Youth has not yet commented on the situation.

Hecht said she believes the City did the right thing by painting over, adding she is sorry the family and friends of O'Brien have been upset by the situation.

"The best thing would be to be able to know who put the messages there, and then if [the City] knew who it was, they could talk to them and find out what is was about."

'We respond to graffiti complaints all the time'

Coun. Maggie Burton agrees that the City did the right thing in the situation, with the information they had.

"The City will typically overlook graffiti posted in this area as we know that it's a recognized tribute wall, but we cannot overlook a potential hateful tag," she said.

Coun. Maggie Burton has been in touch with O'Brien's friends and family about the graffiti work. (CBC)

The complaint about the graffiti was called in to the City's Access 311 phone line, and Burton helped set up an active citizen's response file number for the call.

"We respond to graffiti complaints all the time and we acted within our policy," she said.

Burton has since contacted O'Brien's family members to offer her condolences about his passing and has pledged some of her own money toward a new memorial for him.

Better understanding

Meanwhile, Hecht said a situation like this could be avoided in the future by better policy and communication around the popular paint wall, with the City of St. John's perhaps keeping tabs on who is painting on it.

"If it were someplace else in the City where the graffiti is not authorized, it would be a different situation," said Hecht. "But I think everybody recognizes that that's a graffiti art wall and that's cool."

She emphasizes that nobody is accusing the family or friends of O'Brien, or O'Brien himself, of being a Nazi.

"Nobody knew who they were — we didn't know who put it up there," she said.

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