The Chicago city flag’s sky-blue bars and red stars are everywhere in this city.
There’s a website devoted to pictures of Chicago Flag Tattoos. The flag is on T-shirts, hats, messenger bags, guitars, golf balls, coffee mugs, pillows, shower curtains and bars of soap. Sometimes, the standard is distorted into new shapes—shamrocks, hearts, pizza slices—or its stars are replaced with sports logos.
As reporter Elliott Ramos suggested in a 2011 post for WBEZ, Chicago’s love affair with its flag seems to have taken off in the 1990s, with an influx of young adults into the city. Michael, a kickball player featured on the Chicago Flag Tattoos website, explains why he felt compelled to have the flag permanently emblazoned on his arm: “After moving to Chicago and living here for a few years, Chicago really kind of took a place in my heart, so I thought it’d be a good thing to do.”
Here’s what, exactly, Michael has inked onto his body: The three white stripes represent the North, West, and South sides. The top blue stripe represents Lake Michigan and the North Branch of the Chicago River. The bottom blue stripe represents the South Branch of the river and the canal. The four six-pointed red stars represent major historical events: Fort Dearborn, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, and the Century of Progress Exposition of 1933–34.
Symbolism aside, the flag’s simple, bold design is the reason it caught on. On his Urbanophile blog, Aaron M. Renn wrote: “In the United States, I’d have to rate Chicago far and away #1 in the use of official civic symbols (maybe the best in the world for all I know), and also note the overall high level of design quality of these objects … If you come to Chicago, you’ll notice that the city flag is ubiquitous.”
It’s enough to make you wonder: Is this a unique local thing? How do other cities’ flags stack up against Chicago’s?
Turns out, many are bland, and a few are downright appalling. Even the good flags aren’t necessarily well-known by the people of their cities.
When the North American Vexillological Association (vexillology is the study of flags) conducted a survey in 2004 ranking the nation’s best city flags, Chicago’s flag received a stellar 9.03 out of 10 possible points. But that was only good enough to land Chicago in the No. 2 spot. No. 2? Who could possibly beat us?
Here’s a look at 10 rival city flags from around the country—along with their vexillogical merits and local cultural significance.
The city flag for the nation’s capitol ranked No. 1 in the North American Vexillological Association’s survey, fulfilling the group’s 5 Basic Principles of Flag Design. In particular, it’s simple, it has just two colors, and there’s no lettering on it. Patterned after George Washington’s coat of arms, it features three red stars above two red bars, all against a white field. Like the Chicago flag, it has become a popular tattoo, according to DCist. In June, WAMU radio reported that some Washington residents are getting flag tattoos as a way of showing their solidarity in the fight for D.C. voting rights.
Only two of the 10 largest U.S. cities finished in the vexillologists’ top 10: Chicago and Phoenix. The Arizona capital’s elegant city flag was ranked fourth-best. The city’s namesake mythical bird is in the center of the flag’s maroon field, shown in white silhouette with its wings upraised, almost forming a circle. One flag-loving blogger pointed out that it resembles Japan’s prefectural flags—or how about the Japan Air Lines logo?
It’s hard to tell from searching online whether the Phoenix flag has much mojo in the community, so I emailed some Phoenix tattoo artists. Apryl Triana of 27 Tattoo replied: “I actually moved here from Chicago! While in Chicago for five years, I can’t even count the number of Chicago flag or themed tattoos I did. However, being in Arizona for three years, I have only done a handful of ‘Phoenix Pride’ designs.” But Jason Anthony of Golden Rule Tattoo said, “We’ll have people get the Phoenix that’s on the flag all the time. Considering the Phoenix flag is simply a very iconic image on a maroon field, people rarely get the entire flag and decide to just stick with the Phoenix bird. In contrast, the Chicago flag would appear to need the whole image to convey the stripes and stars that make it up.”
Chicago’s neighbor to the southwest has the nation’s fifth-best flag, according to the survey. Its wavy blue-and-white lines represent the merging of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. The background is red, and there’s a gold circle containing a blue fleur-de-lis over the spot where the rivers come together.
In 2004, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch interviewed some local folks who didn’t care much for the flag, calling it “kind of drab” and “a really ugly carpet.” But in 2007, a commenter at the SkyscraperCity website remarked, “The St. Louis City flag is EVERYWHERE in this city.” And earlier this year, the Distilled History blog praised the flag as “exceptional,” noting that some St. Louis homeowners proudly fly it in front of their homes.
Portland has a flag that matches the city’s reputation for all things organic, with a green background. Blue, white and yellow lines form an off-center star (technically, a “hypocycloid”), symbolizing the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers. A commenter on the SkyscraperPage website remarked: “Maybe it’s made from cruelty-free cloth?” It finished seventh in the vexillological association’s rankings two years later. We’re still waiting for the Portlandia TV show to devote an episode to the flag.
The Indiana capital’s flag symbolizes its position as the “Crossroads of America.” The vexillologists loved it, ranking it as the nation’s eighth-best city flag. But last December, the Indianapolis Star lamented, “Indianapolis’ city flag is rarely seen, except on the doors of city-owned trucks. … the flag is unfamiliar to most city residents.”
Crammed with symbols, Milwaukee’s flag flouts that fundamental rule: “Keep it simple.” The 2004 survey ranked Milwaukee’s very close to the bottom of the list, putting its flag at No. 147 out of 150 cities. The vexillologists gave it an abysmal score of 1.59 out of 10.
Earlier this month, Milwaukee blogger Jeff Sherman called for a new flag. That prompted a rebuttal from Dustin Weis, a city spokesman, on his own blog: “Critics of our regal city flag say that it’s ‘ugly’ and ‘outdated.’ I say, ‘exactly.’ … Like the city, it makes no pretense at simplicity and is a little rough around the edges.” Tarik Moody, a DJ for 88Nine RadioMilwaukee radio, commented on Sherman’s post, saying the city could benefit from a flag as memorable as those for Chicago and Washington. “Those flags have become iconic symbols … people get tattoos of them,” he wrote. “A well-designed flag can unite.”
NYC got a so-so score for its flag—5.11 out of 10—ending up ranked 37th. The flag has vertical bars of orange, white and blue, with the city seal in the middle. After 9/11, the flag served as a symbol of New York’s resolve; some U.S. soldiers and Marines planted it in Afghanistan during the early days of the war there. But Gothamist has mentioned the city’s flag just one time.
I asked my friend Jay Wilkins, a copy editor in Manhattan, about the flag’s prevalence. “I’d say most New Yorkers don’t know the city’s flag,” he replied. “Even though I live in New York, I’m more familiar with the Chicago flag than New York’s, which I only think of as being in parks. Then again, I have Chicago friends, so I’ve been there often enough to have seen it more than once.”
Another big city with a middling score from the vexillological group. LA’s flag got 5.24 points, finishing in 33rd place. Like the NYC flag, it features a city seal plopped down into the middle of three vertical stripes. These have jagged edges, however, and the whole thing is more colorful. An online search turns up scant evidence of people talking about or displaying the flag. I asked journalist Leah Pietrusiak, a former Chicagoan now living in LA, how often she sees it. “Los Angeles has a flag?” she replied. “I never hear anyone talk about it. I just Googled it to see what it looks like … Rastafarian colors!”
POCATELLO, IDAHO: With a score of 1.48 points, this flag finished dead last in the North American Vexillological Association’s survey. It started out as a Chamber of Commerce logo, proclaiming, “Proud to Be Pocatello.” But the flag didn’t turn out to be a source of pride for this city of 54,000—not as far as design lovers are concerned, anyway. “It’s so awful I almost wet my pants laughing at it the first time I saw it,” blogger Peter Lynch wrote.
The evidence here is hardly scientific, but on first brush, it looks like Chicago may have the nation’s most popular city flag. And somehow, it just happened, without any push from a marketing campaign. An insignia of government became the people’s flag.