The Flag of Anything, The Disclaimer, Milwaukee Flag Debacle

And then there was the “People’s Flag of Milwaukee” aka “The Flag of Anything”. Glad I’m not the only one incensed by this non-sense. The kind fellows of The Disclaimer, a talk radio spot on all Milwaukee scene related things, gave the campaign to change the flag a thorough treatment… for the past year.

Who anointed hosts Ryan Schleicher, Matt Wild, and Evan Rytlewski to offer commentary on such important issues? Their names should look familiar. They stint at Milwaukee’s most stalwart and relevant local media outlets WMSE, Milwaukee Record, (R.I.P A.V. Club Milwaukee) and The Shepherd Express.


A Trivial and Timely Controversy

The Milwaukee Flag debacle couldn’t have come at a better time. The ultimate symbol of geopolitical autonomy and identity under scrutiny at the same time as the City itself faces its post-youth lost ‘look in the mirror’ years. Milwaukee has always been the country’s underdog, its cultural conscious; its hardworking, hard living, slightly dysfunctional, majorly quirky, obsessive little snot-nose rascal.

Every major city’s rabidly obscure little cousin, Kentucky Fried Movie was born here. We’ve never given too much care for textbook learning or lavish opulence that now seeps its way into the water supply, a water supply that there was never even a question on whether we’d sell.

Milwaukee natives are so stubborn. We have 5 types of sunscreen in the house and don’t bother to put on one of them before going to get the twelve-noon can-good hand-stamp at Summerfest. We cut the legs off blue jeans before we’d buy shorts; smoke cigarettes at all hours of the day and drink warm can-beer right with it.

We risk life and limb just to make our shoelaces match the stitching in our jeans; and we would rather be late than have a wrinkle on our t-shirt. Our cars don’t need power steering, license plates or a muffler as long as it has 22-inch rims and heat.

We spend hours getting all gussied up to go out on the weekend, to look worse than we did before getting gussied up. Some of us have given up all together and wear sweat-shorts with buttoned-down oxford shirts in public, as an outfit.

We happily work for the man and talk shit about him all-day long. We so cheap, but we are cool with paying taxes just to have the peace of mind that things like painted street markings, public deep-well pools in the Parks, weekly recycling pick-up and the Domes are there, even if we don’t use them as much as we’d like too.

We don’t take ourselves seriously, we been wearing ugly glasses on purpose since the 90’s. Most of all, we know the difference between crap and quality.  On top of all that, we are principled as all get out, which is the main reason the original Milwaukee flag suits Milwaukee best.

A Vexing Context

The baffling thing about the criticism of the Milwaukee Flag is that it doesn’t matter that the flag doesn’t fit some arbitrary flag design criteria that wasn’t even invented when the Milwaukee Flag was designed. It doesn’t matter that some people might think the flag is ugly, or doesn’t follow some new academic body of knowledge. A City’s or Country’s flag is one of those rare things that should not change.

Now, is it novel to discuss a new flag? Yes. Is it a interesting design project topic? Yes. Is it okay to do a civic pride campaign centered on flag design that you can commercialize and sell all kind of chotchkies based on? Yes. Should I have to accept this colonial nonsense as my official flag? No.

A geopolitical flag is not merely a formulaic design, it’s the primary institution that visually represents a geopolitical area. The appearance of a flag is merely an artifact of the history of the area it represents, not a matter of aesthetic principles. Should a kid be able to draw the flag from memory? Not necessarily. A kid should be somewhere figuring out how many different ways they can use a graham cracker other than for food.

Vexillology, while an intriguing field of study, is not the Law of Abraham. Vexillology actually makes a lot of sense for nautical flags or racing flags. By function these types of flags have to convey a specific meaning or action; the observation of which I suspect Vexillology’s founder drew most of his design principles.

New Colonials, Milonials

When a foreign legion of individuals want to disregard the local population and its history, take its natural resources (in this case our Milwaukee-ness) and make money off of it, they make a couple local friends, show up with a flag and stick it in the ground yell “waag waag wahhh wagg wah wagwa wagck!” We can’t undo the past but we can stop using these archaic means of power and control. This New Milonial mentality is the only thing that could benefit from a redesign.

I’ve heard talk of what young twenty-somethings, and old twenty-somethings (people in their early 30’s), can’t find in Milwaukee, like “venture capital” (i.e. someone to give them money for their haphazardly planned ideas); and I heard of this “Creative” or “Maker” class that is shaping things here (both appropriated concepts).

When I hear “creative class” I hear “possible college graduate that is pretty good at using technology and bullshitting their way into more responsibility than they can handle”. Designing psd files at 500 pixels per inch doesn’t automatically mean you’re creative. Constructing a robot does not mean you’re “Maker” (although it would mean you are a programmer, fabricator or inventor, and all very cool things to be).

This flag redesign piece is really an extension of these archetypal misnomers. This new flag, soul-less history-less as it will be, will be damn good flag, but not the City’s flag. Take nothing away from the designers in the flag competition or their ideas, as they just responded to the opportunity and the guidelines. The campaign itself however is horse biscuits.

The people behind this campaign couldn’t really care less about the design of the flag, they just want to say “yeah I got the flag of Milwaukee changed” and get notoriety for a successful media/ social marketing campaign. The flag design is so secondary to the organizers of this whole thing it’s shameful.

Since, Milwaukeeans and their leaders are so good spirited and frankly naïve in a lot of ways, there is a good chance these flag campaign organizers will get what they want. The people of Milwaukee will get no benefit and we will be left with a meaningless flag (although one lucky Milwaukee resident will get to be the flag’s designer.  The ability to say “I designed the Milwaukee flag…” good for a job maybe, or maybe a ‘yeah right’.)

The only way to change the flag of Milwaukee legitimately requires a civic process. It’s that serious. Have a flag referendum on the next General Election ballot. If the majority of City of Milwaukee residents say change the flag, then go ahead change the flag. As it stands now, all the People’s Flag competition designs , while well done, could be any City’s flag. Likewise, most flags using Whitey Smith’s vexillology guidelines could be the flag of anything.

Peak Milwaukee

The New Milonials have actually helped us realize peak-everything Milwaukee. I mean you got New Milonials Columbusing Columbused ideas left and right. When you start hearing about microbreweries popping up out of nowhere on the Eastside riding multi-million dollar start-up investment, you know people are missing the point. After seeing  a piece on 8 new breweries opening this year, I’ll just use the microbrewery as the best example of peak Milwaukee.

The difference between a microbrewery and business venture that makes and sells beer at quantity statutorily considered “micro” in production scale, is that a true microbrewery begins with a person that has a passion for drinking beer of different varieties and who then learns about the process of brewing beer, from bound books found in moldy corners of bookstores, or from another more experienced brewer.

This person then rigs up homemade equipment to make obscure beer recipes and gives beer away to his or her friend until they stop spitting it out. They join a beer brewer’s group, and maybe enter a couple of homebrew competitions. After that, the person finds a sub-standard and affordable place to brew increasingly larger quantities of personalized beer batches until finally enough friends, family and strangers start asking you for beer. It’s the difference between 3Sheeps and Lakefront Brewery, or that damn Badger/Brewer/Packer logo abomination and Wiskullsin.

And the connection to the flag? Well Milwaukee pride is like microbrewing beer, its not about the beer or brewery tours its about the desire to learn about something and experience it deeply. I’m all for  commercial endeavors, but commodifying civic pride is about the biggest poser thing you can do. Instead, “capturing” civic pride and informing it with genuine and immersed experiences should be the goal.

Just like any pop culture moment, the minute someone showed up with some safety pinned patches and spiked hair and said “I’m Punk” it was over; Just like it was over when somebody showed up with a flannel and pre-ripped jeans from Boston Store, or a throw-back jersey and grillz from a suburban mall, or a damn beanie sliding off the back of their head they got as a Christmas gift from Old Navy.

In with the Original

Now back to the Milwaukee Flag. Let’s give credit where credit due, Fred Steffan indeed delivered something special. After spending some time analyzing the flag, notice it embraces the tradition of photo collage and has a layout that is absolutely incredible for the year it was authored.

From a technical standpoint, the Milwaukee flag deserves praise. Anyone who has ever dabbled in graphic design can appreciate the extreme difficulty and care Steffan used to draft this flag without digital assistance. It has remarkable symmetry, the 4 quadrants are generalized by the “Gear” symbol that anchors the design. The vertically aligned barley stalk and year of incorporation counterbalance and confine the circular focal point of the gear. Since the flag is designed in 4-D, the barley stalk actually represents a keep out fence to discourage people from Waukesha from waltzing over here. The gear, in an inadvertent streak of brilliance, may even  create a double entendre referencing the Sun over Lake Michigan shining from the West..

The Milwaukee Flag, Fred Steffan (1954)

The font is serviceable. What makes it classic though, are the all caps and double outline effects. Steffan breaking this style out in 1954 is quite visionary, and most likely unintended genius. The historical elements on this flag are its real strength however and present a counter paradigm for flag design. Should a flag be replicable or should it be a historical document? In my opinion it should be a historical document, and in Milwaukee’s case it not only represents heritage but, in a lot of ways, what we still are.

Out of Obscurity

This obscure blog titled Borchert Field pointed out (among other fascinating historical tidbits) that although the current flag might be busy and there have been various attempts to unseat it, the flag holds an immense number of symbolic and historical gems. The representations contained by the flag bizarrely mix highly stylized illustrations and literal cut and paste: County Stadium, The Mecca, The Basilica, The Civil War standard (correction the WWII heritage flag), and even a damn Milwaukee spaceman (and we have many) levitating in his bubble ship because he was reading a book by oil light in the Central Library. Of course the cargo freighter, and of course as seen in the original flag, Seagulls. There is no telling what other esoteric wisdom Steffan buried in our Flag.

The Disclaimer pointed out that the Milwaukee flag contains a well-intended visage of a Native American, the flags primary weakness. With some input from affected cultures, the flag can easily be updated to acknowledge Native American heritage essential to Milwaukee’s existence.

I was going to rip on some of the proposed flag designs, especially the one that looks like a straight rip-off of the Minolta logo, but alas I’ll just leave it at what Eye Dart said in reference to the Milwaukee flag, “with every rule, there’s the exception, that pivotal moment when a rule established early on is broken in a dramatic way — when the forbidden technique must be used. That moment when you “cross the streams,” destroying the big bad villain, and inevitably triumph.” Rock on Alderman Steffan, Rock on.

P.S. If by some misguided misfortune Milwaukee loses its flag on flag day 2016, I’m flying this one from here out.


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