Robert Lenz's winning flag design, "Sunrise Over the Lake"

Sunrise design picked as Milwaukee ‘People’s Flag’

Online raters choose blue and gold banner from five finalists

Robert Lenz’s design depicting a sunrise over Lake Michigan has been selected as Milwaukee’s “People’s Flag.”

Now it will be up to politicians at City Hall to decide whether it will become the city’s official flag.

The Lenz design beat out four other finalists in an online rating process conducted in May. The winner was to be announced Tuesday night at 88Nine Radio Milwaukee headquarters on East Pittsburgh Avenue. Tuesday, of course, is Flag Day – a celebration first marked in 1885 by schoolteacher Bernard Cigrand in Waubeka, in northern Ozaukee County.

The effort to pick a new city flag was launched last year by Steve Kodis, a freelance graphic designer, Milwaukee enthusiast and graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Kodis sought designs from the public; in all, 1,006 were submitted, and a committee of five people culled them down to about 120, and then to 50 semifinalists. The group then picked five finalists, and the public voted online between May 14 and 31 to pick the winner.

He said organizers will now be selling the flags (at $50 for a 3- by 5-foot banner), and urging the public to contact Milwaukee Common Council members and urge them to adopt the Lenz design as the official city flag.

The winning design has a gold field on top, a dark blue field on the bottom, and in the middle, a circle that is solid and white above and has three light blue stripes below. Lenz’s website explains that the gold represents wheat or beer, and the dark blue represents Lake Michigan and Milwaukee’s three rivers (Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic). The three light-blue stripes represent the three original settlements from which the city was formed – Juneautown on the east, Kilbourntown on the west and Walker’s Point on the south — and the white sun represents the unified city formed from the three. “The sunrise also gives a feeling of hope, and a new day,” the site says.

The design also may give a feeling of déjà vu – WISN radio talker Dan O’Donnell has pointed out its similarity to Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign logo. Its main two colors also happen to be those of Marquette University, for what that’s worth.

Jim Owczarski, Milwaukee city clerk, said in May that he thought that if the winning flag design was to replace the current city flag, it would need a sponsor on the Common Council, and he speculated that if it was introduced it would be sent to the Steering and Rules Committee, which Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton heads as Council president. On Tuesday, Owczarski said there was no indication yet of that being in the works. “I haven’t heard a word or a whisper from any member of the Milwaukee Common Council seeking to change the city’s flag,” he said.

The current flag has a few defenders —  including one who had it tattooed on his arm — but it also has plenty of critics. A major one is Roman Mars, the Oakland, Calif., based podcaster whose “99% Invisible” podcast deals with all things design. Mars produced a TED Talk in March 2015 in which he described his love of well-designed flags and identified Milwaukee’s as a “hot mess,” and “one of the biggest train wrecks in vexillological history.” Vexillology is the study of flags.

The flag was adopted in 1954, designed by a former alderman (and professional artist) named Fred Steffan, who apparently assembled it out of multiple submissions from the public. The flag, on a blue background, has among other things a big gear representing Milwaukee manufacturing, a barley stalk representing the brewing industry, City Hall, the Milwaukee Auditorium (now remade into the Milwaukee Theatre), then-new County Stadium, the head of a Native American chief in a war bonnet, another, much simpler flag, a ship on Lake Michigan, a church and some houses. It’s been called a “kitchen sink” design, because it seems to contain just about every possible symbol of Milwaukee.

The design violates the basic principles of vexillology, Mars said in his TED Talk, a major one being that it be easy to read and understand at a distance, while flapping in the wind.

In addition, Ald. Michael Murphy — who says “The flag needs to be updated, to say the least” — points out that it could be offensive to some people. For example, the head of the Indian chief may well offend Native Americans, because his skin is depicted as bright red. There are also one or two Christian crosses (depending on how you interpret a shape within the big gear) – which may be another point of contention.

Kodis said in May that it’s the group’s “greatest hope that the city will adopt the flag” that’s selected in this process. It’s also possible, though, that the city won’t be ready to adopt the winning design, and the group would produce and distribute the winner as an unofficial “People’s Flag of Milwaukee,” which is what they’ve been calling their project all along. That was to start Tuesday night at the launch party at 88Nine — where 25 flags were to be for sale — and continue at the Milwaukee Bucks block party and arena ground-breaking Downtown on Saturday.

One other element of the process is that Greater Together involved minority young people throughout the area in the process of designing flags. Greater Together, says Ken Hanson, the group’s executive director, is a nonprofit set up a couple of years ago by the local graphic arts industry with the goal of getting more minority candidates into the arts. “Preliminary estimates,” Hanson said in May, are that “creative professions in Milwaukee are about 97 percent white.”



Tom Tolan is managing editor at Milwaukee Magazine, where he's worked since January 2016. He spent 24 years at The Milwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as a copy editor, assistant metro editor and reporter. He lives in Shorewood.