The District Flexes Its Political Muscle, One Tattoo at a Time
By Tommy Nguyen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 24, 2004; Page C01
Mookie, a tattoo artist at Top Notch Tattoos who doesn't like to be called Marcus Raferty, flips through a photo album of his professional work, pointing out the more popular designs at his U Street shop these days. Koi fish, praying hands, the old-school Americana of thumping hearts and landing eagles -- big favorites, Mookie says -- flipping along, flipping along.
Wait a minute -- flip it back a page. There's a photo of a kid with a tattoo of the D.C. flag sprawled out on his back, the red stripes and stars stretching from shoulder to shoulder.
"Those are real popular here," Mookie says. "I've done four in the last couple of months."
So what's going on here?
Mookie raises his eyebrows as if to say Are you joking? "Represent!" he says. "Punk-rock city, yo!"
He's referring to the growing legion of kids roaming the city's punk and hardcore pavement, with their loyalty to their hometown sound planted firmly in their hearts, and on their skin.
"The D.C. flag has been a symbol for D.C. punk for some time," says Erik Gamlem, 27, who first came to Washington when he was 13 and now carries two District of Columbia flag images on his body. He got the first one four summers ago shortly after attending a Fort Reno concert, where the hot weather that day revealed several flags inked on the arms and backs of D.C.'s 'core constituency. For Gamlem, he spotted a nation among a community.
"When I go out of town," he says, "I like to let people know where I'm from and who I am, and that I'm a part of an incredible music scene."
How did it all start? Well, you first get your footing in the city's punk music history by knowing the likes of Minor Threat, Fugazi and the influence of Dischord Records. But then you let flag-bearers like Gamlem show you where the music is today: groups like Mannequin, Homage to Catalonia, Majority Rule and Beauty Pill top Gamlem's list.
"I got mine in 1999," says Ryan Nelson, drummer of Beauty Pill and former member of D.C. stalwarts the Most Secret Method. He says he saw his first D.C. flag tattoo back in the early 1990s on a couple of local rockers who definitely gave the trend a high-voltage stage: Seth Lorinczi and Jesse Quitslund, the former Vile Cherubs band mates who were then part of an incarnation called Please.
"Actually, there were four of us, and we all got the tattoos the same night, on Jesse's birthday," says Lorinczi, who is from San Francisco, home turf of his new outfit, the Quails. "We just had huge pride in the D.C. scene," says Lorinczi. "And it's graphically interesting, too."
Dischord Records thought so, too, when the label released its seminal compilation of D.C. hardcore in 1981 called "Flex Your Head," where the original cover art subverted the D.C. flag by featuring three X's in place of the stars. (In the same decade the X would come to signify the city's "straight edge" punk scene, but the straight-edge kids who got X tats would invariably gravitate to the triple-X design.)
Over the years local bands, particularly the Nation of Ulysses, were co-opting the flag's design left and right; as Washington's punk music reached way beyond its borders, so did the flag's design. Nelson, who also works for Dischord Records, says it's doubtful that many of today's punk and hardcore kids living in, say, the Midwest know anything about the D.C. flag derivation of their three-star or three-X tats.
But for Nelson, a nation of ubiquity just doesn't rock. "It actually makes me feel terrible -- I don't want the D.C. flag tattoo being the new Tasmanian Devil. You know what that is?" Yes, it's a Looney Tunes character who can spin into a dust devil. "Yeah, my dad has one."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
D.C. statehood activists Jill Blankespoor and Melissa Ballowe model their twin tattoos.
(Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)