The District Flexes Its Political Muscle, One Tattoo at a Time
But the main reason there are more D.C. flag tattoos these days, some say, is because the design means a lot more now.
"I like punk-rock music, but it had nothing to do with the reason why I got my tattoo," says Abby Sexton, 24, who got her flag more than a year ago.
Sexton, a Washington native, says she's being swept up by a renaissance; while the punk and hardcore kids salute the city's longstanding music tradition with their tats, Sexton's mark of distinction is of a new city. "Back in the 1990s when I was growing up here, there was no love -- we had problems with Marion Barry, people were calling us the murder capital of the world, we had our basic rights taken away by the Control Board. No one cared about D.C. But I think that's changed."
Over at his job at Kramerbooks in Dupont Circle, David Onate stops for a moment and pulls up his sleeve. "I love this city, truly and profoundly," says the 22-year-old bartender, who got his tattoo two years ago. He believes that most D.C. flag tattoos have a political aspect. "You can't be born and raised in this city and not be somewhat political."
Journalist Mike Kanin got his tattoo a couple of years ago and wrote about it in a Washington City Paper piece denouncing the D.C. Council's measure to add the slogan "No Taxation Without Representation" to the flag design. Kanin says most tattoos are as political as they are personal because "if you're going to put something permanent on your skin, it better mean a lot to you."
Kanin isn't kidding. Two of Top Notch's most recent D.C. flags fell on the thick political skins of Melissa Ballowe, 23, and Jill Blankespoor, 28, champions of D.C. statehood who were arrested last October on charges of unlawful entry after they tried to meet with House Speaker Dennis Hastert. According to Ballowe, she and Blankespoor were among seven activists who visited several congressional offices with stacks of petitions supporting Virginia Republican Rep. Tom Davis's bill for D.C. budget autonomy. When the group arrived at Hastert's office, Ballowe says, "His staff slammed the door on us, wouldn't accept our petitions, and then they called U.S. Capitol Police."
The group's trial date is set for July 6, says Blankespoor. "We got these tattoos to call attention to our court trial, and to what we're trying to accomplish as D.C. statehood activists," she says, adding that her tattoo also symbolizes her commitment to her city.
The two women use their tattoos to spark conversations on the street, gauge the public's interest in the statehood debate and, ultimately, help persuade other citizens to do their part. What's interesting, says Ballowe (whose grassroots nom de plume is Zoe Mitchell), is that many times she and Blankespoor don't have to say a word, so strong is the tattoo's political agenda these days.
"One man came up to me at Rite Aid and said, 'Free D.C.!' when he saw the tattoo," says Ballowe. "Every day I wear short-sleeved shirts, because I want to show the world how much I care about D.C. The tattoo is a form of protest and activism."
As an added bonus, the flag is also a form of minimalist beauty and merciful simplicity -- certainly a relief for every tattooed activist's level of patience and tolerance for pain. "I've been looking at the flags of other states," says Blankespoor, mentioning that the state seal on Virginia's flag would have been a nightmare to render. "I think we're pretty lucky."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
D.C. statehood activists Jill Blankespoor and Melissa Ballowe model their twin tattoos.
(Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)