What’s the deal with the People’s Flag of Milwaukee?

For flag fans, vexillology buffs, and folks who have followed the never-ending People’s Flag saga, that question may seem absurd. Hardly a week has gone by in the past three years (!) where the homegrown flag hasn’t made headlines, shown up on a slew of products, or inspired a slew of debates. But for other folks—including members of the Milwaukee Arts Board—that question is sincere. Wait…what’s the People’s Flag again? What was the process behind the initial contest? Who was involved? Who wasn’t? How does the now-ubiquitous “Sunrise Over The Lake” represent Milwaukee? Is it really as ubiquitous as its proponents claim? In short: What’s the deal with the People’s Flag of Milwaukee?

That question was addressed Tuesday afternoon at City Hall, where People’s Flag representatives attempted to justify their methods—and, indeed, their very existence—to a subcommittee of the Milwaukee Arts Board. How inclusive was/is the People’s Flag campaign? Were/are all Milwaukeeans represented? “Our basic charge is to identify the process,” explained subcommittee chair Bill DeLind. Just when you thought it was safe to sidestep local government…

A mercifully short refresher: In 2015, inspired by a TED Talk in which podcast host Roman Mars called the official Milwaukee flag one of the worst in the country, Milwaukee graphic designer Steve Kodis (along with non-profit organization Greater Together and others) spearheaded a grassroots contest to come up with a new flag. One year, 1,000 entries, and roughly 6,000 votes later, Robert Lenz’s “Sunrise Over The Lake” was crowned the winner. Since then, the design has graced everything from T-shirts, hats, and flags (natch), to beer, bicycles, and tattoos. You’ve seen it. You either love it or you don’t. For some, it’s an uninspired app icon that says “Corona beer” more than it says “Milwaukee.” For others, it’s a symbol of hope, optimism, and a city moving forward. It looks great on an iPhone case ($28.79, marked down from $35.99) and a duvet cover ($108.99).

A mercifully short update: In July 2018, the People’s Flag folks made a presentation to the Common Council and asked that the flag be adopted as the official city flag. Things didn’t go well. The Common Council punted the matter to the Milwaukee Arts Board, which was tasked with determining the flag’s official or unofficial future by December 31. On September 25, an Arts Board subcommittee took up the matter; according to a report from Urban Milwaukee, that didn’t go well, either. “I don’t like the flag. Even if I hear what they have to say, I probably still won’t like it,” said DeLind. “I never even saw the [new] flag until we started talking about this,” said subcommittee member Mildred Harpole.

Which brings us to Tuesday’s meeting. At the behest of the Arts Board, Kodis and Greater Together’s Ken Hanson—joined by Reggie Jackson of America’s Black Holocaust Museum, and Los Glover of Def Perception—once again made their People’s Flag pitch. The TED Talk. The old and messy current flag that violates the five principles of good flag design handed down from God to Moses on Mount Sinai. The contest. The outreach to media, young people, and people of color. The contest’s true purpose as a driver of dialogue about racial inequality and the power of design. (“If we’re going to reinvent ourselves, why not start with a new flag?” said Jackson.) The judges. The packed event at City Hall. The voting. The winner. The fact that so many people have embraced the flag and have made it their own. The fact that, at this point, Kodis and Hanson can practically make this (very good) presentation in their sleep.

The Arts Board had questions. Why didn’t the initial People’s Flag campaign include anyone in city government? City officials were supportive, Hanson said, but they ultimately left organizers to their own devices. How could a mere 6,000 votes represent all of Milwaukee? Many aldermen and alderwomen are voted in with fewer votes, Hanson noted. What’s the story with the flag’s murky symbolism? All flags are symbolic, Kodis explained, and figuring out their meaning is a “beautiful thing.” What about folks who claim the design doesn’t exactly scream “Milwaukee”? You can’t please everyone, Hanson said, and “people are stretching to find a reason not to like it.” Could the People’s Flag have better reached out to Spanish-speaking Milwaukeeans and people without access to the internet and social media? “I’m sure we could have done a better job,” Hanson conceded. “We did our best,” Kodis said.

Other questions loomed over the presentation. Discussed at the September Arts Board meeting was the potential cost of adopting the People’s Flag. According to Urban Milwaukee:

One chief concern was the cost of a new flag which could range from $3,000 to $300,000 according to a report from the Legislative Reference Bureau. Legislative analyst Tea Norfolk told the committee there are two primary cost drivers. The straight-forward component is replacing all of the flags on display at city buildings, something that would cost approximately $3,000. The more complicated matter is replacing the image of the flag on the driver’s and passenger’s side of every city vehicle. Replacing the seals would cost $16 per seal, but doing so as the vehicles are replaced would result in no new cost for the city. The more aggressive measure, replacing every decal as fast as possible, would cost $252,412.50 according to the Department of Public Works.

In the end, Tuesday’s meeting was far and away more positive than the oft-testy Common Council meeting back in July, yet Kodis and Hanson remained low-key incredulous that anyone could still be unfamiliar with the flag. “I was expecting the Council to be more familiar with our process,” Hanson said. He added that he was “disappointed” with his group’s presentation back in July.

Oddly, the People’s Flag campaign is currently neck deep in the very same government bureaucracy it initially sought to avoid. So much for disruption; hello, endless meetings with 17-member arts boards. Kodis even eluded to this unexpected tangle of red tape when he revealed that he had strongly urged organizers of a similar flag campaign in Tulsa, Oklahoma to go through official city channels. “But they didn’t,” he said.

It was easy to sympathize with Kodis and Hanson’s frustration. The People’s Flag campaign has been a thing for more than three years. For many folks, the new flag is the Milwaukee flag. But it was also easy to sympathize with the Arts Board. This is what government is supposed to do: ask questions, ask more questions, represent all citizens. Yes, the People’s Flag may be ubiquitous in some circles, but its official/unofficial status shouldn’t be determined by popularity alone. “I don’t think our charge is to give up…that’s why it was sent to us,” said subcommittee member David Flores at the September meeting. “Just because it’s all around doesn’t mean we have to adopt it.”

The full Milwaukee Arts Board is scheduled to meet again on October 9.

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Matt Wild weighs between 140 and 145 pounds. He lives on Milwaukee's east side.