Will Milwaukee Adopt a New City Flag?

Finalists for the “People’s Flag of Milwaukee” will be unveiled on Saturday, May 14, but a final decision on any change to the much-discussed city flag will be up to City Hall politicians.

Milwaukee gets a look Saturday at five finalists for what’s being termed the “People’s Flag of Milwaukee.” But whether it becomes the city’s official flag depends on City Hall politics.

The effort to pick a new flag was launched by Steve Kodis, a freelance graphic designer, Milwaukee enthusiast and graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who organized the effort last year, seeking entries from the public. 

In all, 1,006 designs 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, which will be unveiled Saturday evening at City Hall.

Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton will present the five finalists at Saturday’s unveiling, says Ken Hanson, executive director of Greater Together, a nonprofit involved in the flag project. Then on June 14, after the public has selected the winning design, Mayor Tom Barrett will announce it, Hanson says.

It’s not clear if the Milwaukee Arts Board, which could conceivably be asked to recommend a flag design, will be involved.

Ald. Mike Murphy, who chairs that, said the group hadn’t contacted him about Saturday’s event. Ald. Nik Kovac, the vice chair of the board, has been included in discussions of the flag — Greater Together tweeted a photo of him in March holding a copy of the current city flag with a wry expression on his face. On Thursday he praised the group’s efforts to rethink the flag, but he wouldn’t commit to adopting the one that emerges from the process until he’s sure that he – and his constituents – like it.

Both Murphy and Kovac lost out in the recent Common Council president race when Hamilton defeated Murphy. Hamilton later removed Kovac as chairman of the Council’s influential Finance and Personnel Committee.

Jim Owczarski, Milwaukee city clerk, said he thought that if the winning flag design was to replace the current 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 Hamilton heads as Council president.

The current flag doesn’t have many defenders, but it does have plenty of attackers. A major one is Roman Mars, the Oakland, Calif., based podcaster whose excellent “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 the mid-1950s, 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), the 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 pointed out 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, 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. And did our local tribes wear these Plains Indian head dresses? I don’t think so. (The 1950s Milwaukee Braves mascot did, though.) 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.

The Journal Sentinel published a story about the flag by reporter Mary Spicuzza online Wednesday, and it was accompanied by photos of 45 semifinalist designs and several honorable mentions. The five finalists are being held in reserve by the organizers, Kodis said Wednesday, and will be displayed as actual flags on Saturday.

Nevertheless, a few staff members at Milwaukee Magazine settled on a favorite design from those posted on the JS site. It’s the second from the bottom of the right column of this page, a design submitted by Jeremy Detina. Our thinking: The lake is there, the sun rising over it, and the three white chevrons represent the Calatrava addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum – but also Milwaukee’s three founders (Juneau, Kilbourn and Walker) and its three rivers (Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic). But Kodis said this design is not a finalist, so never mind.

Any hints on the actual finalists? Kodis says two of the designs incorporate a cream color, seeing as how we’re known as the Cream City because of the color of our native bricks. All five of them have blue, for the rivers and the lake. And Kodis says three of them have a “main element” that makes them distinct. We’ll have to see what that means on Saturday.

As for the next steps, the public will get a chance to rate the five finalists online between Saturday and June 14, Flag Day (a celebration, by the way, created by a schoolteacher in the Ozaukee County hamlet of Waubeka, Wis.). Mayor Barrett has agreed to announce the final winner on Flag Day, say Hanson and Kodis.

The winner (or winners) will be selected by the number of rating points given to them online. Kodis doesn’t know exactly how this will go – there could be a near tie, for example, in which the group might ask aldermen to pick between the top two.

Kodis says 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 could produce and distribute the winner as an unofficial “People’s Flag of Milwaukee,” which is what they’ve been calling their project all along.

Hanson says that Hamilton and Barrett are “chewing on” what position to take about the process – whether to accept the result with gratitude or hold out for some other design.

Representatives of both pols didn’t return calls this week.

Hanson also said the Milwaukee Bucks are chewing on the idea of getting involved in some way.

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 Hanson, was 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,” he says, are that “creative professions in Milwaukee are about 97 percent white.”

Anyway, here’s a pretty good quote about local flags from the Roman Mars TED Talk:

“By having bad flags we don’t use, we cede that territory to sports teams and chambers of commerce and tourism boards. Sports teams can leave and break our hearts — and I’m sorry, some of us don’t really care about sports — and tourism campaigns can be cheesy, but a great city flag is something that represents the city to its people and its people to the world at large. And when that flag is a beautiful thing, that connection is a beautiful thing.”



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.