Photograph by Charles Steck
Not content with protesting the District’s colonial status on license plates, the taxation-without-representation crew has decided to aim higher: On July 2, the D.C. Council passed a measure that will, pending a final design, add “No Taxation Without Representation” to the D.C. flag. Before long, a political statement could be flying from every municipal flagpole.
Trouble is, some of us have already made statements of our own. Last December, a friend and I swaggered into a tattoo parlor and asked the man behind the counter for matching emblems on our right forearms: two red bars underneath three red stars. I was going to show him a picture so he could see what it looked like, but he knew the flag right off. As he sketched up the outline, he mentioned something about “all those kids” getting D.C.-flag tattoos. “What’s it mean?” he asked.
It means this: We are from Washington, D.C., and the whole world should know. I’ve seen the same design on other arms and legs. People get the message, even if they have to ask what the logo is first.
My love for this city is beyond second-guessing—just like tattoos, as my father always warned me. But I sure as shit am not gonna go back to add “No Taxation Without Representation” to my arm.
It’s OK—it’s essential—to call attention to the District’s plight. But to do it by desecrating the flag is an insult to ourselves.
As it is, our flag is a source of pride. It’s simple, as standards go: that short row of stars over twin stripes, taken from George Washington’s coat of arms. The two-color combination shows up clearly and is pleasing to the eye. From a body-art perspective, it’s kinda hard to get red ink to stain the skin, but you can manage.
Compare that spare elegance with the flag that flies just to our north. Maryland’s clashing, zagging pit of ugly should give us all the incentive we need to keep our flag plain.
Besides, the proposed protest flag has writing on it. And flags with writing eat it. That’s the reason most of those “Join or Die” and “Don’t Tread on Me” banners faded into the background after the Revolutionary War was won. If our founding fathers had had a little more graphic-design sense, maybe we’d be pledging allegiance to the unadorned rattlesnake today. Instead, Betsy Ross won out.
Text on the flag says you haven’t done the thinking to create an effective symbol for yourselves. The District’s standard shouldn’t be a cop-out like Virginia’s mess, with the state motto and seal slapped on a generic blue background. Why not just stick a big “VIRGINIA” across the top, the way Kansas and Montana do it? Those aren’t flags; they’re advertising banners. You might as well tow them behind an airplane.
Aesthetics aside, putting the slogan on the flag would re-reveal the District’s passive-aggressive civic mind-set, which has brought us such favorites as the control board. After a while, self-pity starts to sound like self-congratulation: We’re D.C., we get taxed, we get no vote, and we are miserable. Stamping some version of “Taxation Without Representation” on every available piece of metal, cloth, and plastic would reduce our civic identity to a one-note, high-pitched whine. It was clever on the license plates, but it’s not clever enough for me to put it on my arm.
If we want our claims on statehood to be taken seriously, we need to respect our own assets. We need to show people that there’s more to this city than its lack of voting rights. The District of Columbia has a past. An identity. A character, chiseled out of swampland.
Otherwise, you might as well be campaigning for retrocession. If congressional representation is all that matters, then let’s go join Montgomery County. Raise that cornball rings-and-crenelations flag over the Wilson Building and shut up.
That won’t do. We are a place with our own secrets, our own history, our own mistakes. A complex place that hasn’t been Maryland or Virginia for nearly 200 years. You can’t reduce that to a three-word slogan. There are neighborhoods full of individuals—newcomers, old-timers, and punk kids alike—people who should have more than one reason to be proud to live in one of the four quadrants. And if they don’t feel that way, the mayor isn’t going to fix the situation by pasting a bumper sticker onto our flag.
I prize my own D.C. identity. I’ve chosen it over others. I didn’t have to; I spent my first six months in Boston, and I’ve lived in other places. But in nearly every respect, I’m a Washingtonian. When the time comes, I may even march my loyal Red Sox-shorts-wearing ass to the Sports Authority and buy a Vladimir Guerrero Senators jersey.
This is where I’ve spent most of my life. In particular, it’s where I spent that big important chunk of it, the chunk where you learn about who you are. As it turned out, I’m a rocker. Not like Van Halen (mostly), but like MacKaye. And Picciotto. And Stabb, for that matter, and countless other princes of the counterculture. These were my childhood heroes.
And we understand where we’re from, in a way that the council, I guess, doesn’t. When you go other places in the world—yes, world—you get respect if you say you’re from D.C. You stand onstage and say it—say, “Good evening ladies and gentleman, we’re ______, from Washington, D.C.” And the other kids care about that shit. They wanna know more. What’s your town like? What goes on there? Do you know Fugazi? And I’m proud to tell them about the pretty places, the not-so-pretty places, where to barbecue, Ben’s, Fort Reno—all that stuff. It’s real to them, and it’s real to us. Real enough to wear it on your forearm for the rest of your life. CP