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."
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."
D.C. statehood activists Jill Blankespoor and Melissa Ballowe model their twin tattoos.