Matt Pavesich is a rhetorician. That means he studies argument and persuasion, not just in words but in symbols. And what is more symbolic than a flag?
A flag may be little more than a scrap of colored fabric, and yet some people get a lump in their throat when they see it wave. Some people burn it to express their anger. Some people are willing to follow it into battle.
Matt is an assistant teaching professor in Georgetown University’s English department. He’s from Illinois originally and lived in Chicago before moving to the District three years ago. Chicago has a nice flag: two blue horizontal stripes flanking four red six-pointed stars. Even so, the design doesn’t get around much, said Matt, 37.
“Nobody in Chicago adapted it,” he said. “Folks didn’t see it as a source of creative material, as they do here.”
Here, Matt started seeing the D.C. flag everywhere. Not just in its official form, hanging from buildings, but depicted in murals, on advertisements, in graffiti. The simple design — two red stripes, three red stars — is infinitely malleable.
There are flags where the stars are transformed into baseballs, hearts or shamrocks. There are flags where the stars are replaced by the bold X’s of the hard-core movement, the symbol that was Magic Markered onto the hands of straight-edge punks. There are flags where the bars are rendered as waves or as chevrons.
“The thing that really gets me is the scale at which it’s happening and the materials and all the different subsystems,” Matt said.
Matt started tracking where he finds what he calls adapted D.C. flags, photographing them and posting them online, at Dcadapters.org. At last count, he had collected more than 300.
They’re on signs, posters, stickers. One of Matt’s favorites appeared fleetingly on a bus stop a block from his 16th Street NW apartment. “It was regular printer paper on which somebody had written ‘Chin up, Butter Cup’ and put the flag in the bottom. The second stripe of the flag was curved in a smile. It was there for no more than a day. I love that kind of quick-hit stuff.”
While some people might be content to simply gather, Matt is an academic, which means he is driven to categorize and theorize. He found that the entities that have adapted the D.C. flag typically fall into one of four categories: local businesses, political candidates, street artists and activists. Matt allows that the boundaries are permeable.
Matt has detected differences in the reasons the flag design is deployed. He suspects that candidates and businesses use the flag as a way of claiming local legitimacy. A business like a coffee shop wants to be seen as of Washington even if it’s a brand-new presence in a changing neighborhood.
“On the other hand, street artists and activists tend to shape or resist those changes,” Matt said. “There’s a sort of emotional tension that I see cutting across the different flag activity.”
An example of that edgier kind of adapted flag: a sticker with elements of the D.C. flag and the words “Public Property — For community need not developer greed.”
And what to make of the message at the Red Derby, a bar on 14th Street NW? Underneath the familiar stars and bars someone had crudely inked: “You’re in D.C. now, Wonder bread.”
As Matt plotted the locations of adapted flags across the District, he noticed something else: “I realized very quickly that the densest cluster of adapted flag activity happens in neighborhoods that are rapidly changing now or have recently changed: Shaw, Bloomingdale, U Street, 14th Street,” he said.
That interests Matt. “Why is it the neighborhoods that are under pressure that produce adapted flags, as opposed to a neighborhood like Georgetown?” he asked.
I have my theory. Washington attracts transplants from across the United States, many of them young people who want to show their allegiance to their new home. Hipsters move to hip, gentrifying neighborhoods, not settled ones. Appropriating the flag allows them to broadcast their hipness while simultaneously claiming ownership.
Those who oppose the newcomers embrace the flag, too, but see it as a symbolic bulwark, a talisman against appropriation.
Of course, that’s just a theory. It may simply be that the D.C. flag shows up everywhere because it’s just so darn cool.
To see a history of how the District’s flag was designed and chosen, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.