Running it up the Flagpole

Has our city banner reached its expiration date?

“I call these things the ‘kitchen-sink’ flags – they just put everything on there.” Such is the verdict handed down by James J. Ferrigan III when it comes to Milwaukee’s official city flag. With decades of experience working with other municipalities on flag designs, Ferrigan serves as spokesman for the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA), a group devoted to the “study of flags and their cultural, historical, political, and social significance.” And it’s hard to argue with his opinion. Brew City’s banner is chock full of symbols that reflect the state of the city circa 1955, about the time local leaders discovered we were one of just a handful of metropoles in the country without a flag to unfurl.

After a citywide competition, former Ald. Fred Steffan, a member of the city’s art commission, compiled “the best elements” of the flag designs submitted into a municipal hodgepodge. To wit, the mashup included City Hall, County Stadium, the Milwaukee Arena (aka MECCA Arena, aka UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena), a Native American, a house, a church (which might just be an illegal endorsement of religion) and barley (which almost definitely is not illegal but might be mistaken by some for a menorah).

To say that the flag has never been well-received would be an understatement. A 2001 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article details the plight of Lee Tishler, a Milwaukee Public Museum employee who came close to replacing the original design with his own, the victor in another citywide flag contest, this one organized in 1975. For reasons that remain murky, Tishler’s flag was never adopted, though he did receive the contest’s prize, a $100 savings bond. In 2001, another contest went for naught after the Milwaukee Arts Board refused to endorse any of the 105 designs submitted. Which was too bad, because three years later, NAVA rated Milwaukee as 147th (out of 150) in a nationwide ranking of city flags.

Recently, the Milwaukee Police Department redesigned the patches its officers wear on their arms, updating the emblems to include such modern symbols as the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Calatrava addition. So we think it’s high time to do the same for the city. Surely, a call to action would bring out the city’s many vexillographers, amateur or otherwise.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We don’t purport to know what the new flag should look like, folks. We’re just here to get the wheels moving (again). Anyone with the faintest desire to contribute to the effort should visit and register your support for updating and redesigning our banner. We want a flag that will unite its people and inspire them to greatness.

To be sure, there are more pressing matters that face our city, but how can we stand united to battle those ailments when our overarching banner features images long ago relegated to the dustbins of history?

As Ferrigan puts it, “A great city deserves a great flag,” and we couldn’t agree more.

‘Running it up the Flagpole’ appears in the June 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
Purchase a copy on newsstands at one of 400+ locations throughout Wisconsin.

Be the first to get every new issue. Subscribe.



Former Managing Editor