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The DC Flag Tattoo Is Over

Frequently seen everywhere. Photograph by Flickr user Ted Eytan.

Last Friday, Tom Sherwood, Kojo Nnamdi, and Mary Cheh joined the ranks of Washingtonians who have marked themselves with tattoos in the shape of the DC flag. The inking stemmed from a long-running gag on WAMU’s The Politics Hour—for years, Sherwood said during the station’s pledge drives that if someone donated at least $5,000, he would get the tattoo.

Sherwood eventually lowered the threshold to $3,000, and when the large gift came in, Nnamdi and Cheh, who were also in the studio at the time, agreed to get inked up as well. On the surface, the session at Fatty’s Tattoos & Piercings on H Street, Northeast, seemed a bit impressive: an author of Dream City, DC’s favorite radio host, and the councilmember representing the city’s toniest neighborhoods got buddy tattoos.

If only the three stars and two bars were still a cool thing to embed under one’s skin.

In the Washington Post today, Emily Heil suggests the DC flag tattoo has lost its coolness because of the ages of its newest high-profile adopters (Sherwood is 69, Nnamdi is 70, and Cheh is 65). But that’s a bit simplistic, and ageist. DC flag tattoos aren’t passé because aging Baby Boomers are getting them; they’ve been uncool for years.

The District’s flag was a symbol of defiance years before the city adopted “Taxation Without Representation” as its motto in 2000, often flown by its punk and hardcore music scenes. One cover of the 1981 Dischord Records compilation Flex Your Head was a stylized city flag with the stars replaced by X’s, and Nation of Ulysses frequently mounted the flag as a backdrop for their live shows. Through the 1980s and ’90s, flying the DC flag was defiant—it was an act of taking pride in a city even as it suffered through two decades of decay and horrific crime rates. Body art was a natural complement.

But those same punks who hoisted the flag through the “bad old days,” have been wary of the tattoo trend for more than a decade. By 2004, DC flag tattoos had become so ubiquitous, the city’s sigil was approaching the kind of exposure reserved for mainstream cartoon characters.

“I don’t want the DC flag tattoo being the new Tasmanian Devil,” longtime DC musician Ryan Nelson told the Post that year, comparing the flag to a relatively minor Looney Tunes character who was massively popularized during the ’90s through a pile of cartoons, video games, sweatshirts, and tattoos that showcased his ability to churn into a destructive dust cloud. Nelson told the Post he got his flag tattoo in 1999, but that his father sports one of the Tasmanian Devil.

Today, alas for Nelson, DC flag images are everywhere—jewelry and T-shirts, beer logos, and signs for movie theaters. Professional sports teams use it. DC United’s original logo, created in 1996, featured a reference to the flag’s stars; the Washington Capitals’ current logo, introduced in 2007, includes the stars. And tattoos still get a lot of hype. DCist ran galleries of people flashing their flag tattoos in consecutive years; there’s also a periodically updated Tumblr blog of DC flag tattoos.

And all of that is fine. It’s great that DC’s residents and businesses like to show their hometown pride. And it’s a pretty nice-looking flag, to boot. In a 2004 survey by the North American Vexillogical Association, DC’s flag was named the best of any US city. No wonder so many local companies want to adopt it into their iconographies or why even a tattoo-phobic public figure like Sherwood would agree to wear it on his biceps for the rest of his life. Surely the same can’t be said in, say, Montpelier, Vermont, which had the ugliest flag according to that survey. (It’s a real clunker.)

“We do a lot of them,” Jeff Marsala, a manager at Georgetown tattoo shop Jinx Proof, told Heil. “No matter who you are, it’s an easy decision and a cool way to show city pride.”

But that’s precisely the point Nelson was getting at in 2004. What a DC flag tattoo isn’t anymore is a hip show of punk defiance, not when beloved media figures and politicians sport them, and the same design—no matter how clean and graceful—be found on countless brands. Sherwood, Nnamdi, and Cheh can be applauded for having enough civic pride to get the city’s flag stamped on their bodies, but they’re not exactly rebels.

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Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.