For much longer than I am willing to admit I have been obsessed with flags. My trusty yellow legal pad was covered with tiny drawings of real and imagined flags, and I talked extensively about the tackiness of specific flags to anyone who would listen, and, perhaps most embarrassingly, I referred to my study of flags as vexillology. I love the way the perfect geometry of a good flag looks when it is billowing freely in the wind, and a flag at half mast brings my world down with it. A flag is noble and monolithic and is ideally the distillation of a place, but there is also massive weight in the symbolism of a flag. Flags can tell the story of oppression, and they can symbolize a history fraught with complications. I love Los Angeles, but I hate its flag (it is just undeniably ugly). For centuries, a black flag with a skull and crossbones made grown men quiver, and now it is reserved for children’s games. The black, red, green, and white of the Arab flags unite those ancient, bickering states, and the stars and stripes tear through the wind on diesel pickups as they roar down highway 33.
The American flag is also the focus of the first section of Arthur Grace’s America 101. The photobook describes the way Grace sees this glorious and hypocritical paradise of oddity. I spent so much time reading this book that it changed the way I take photos. But it has also changed the way I see the American flag in general. Grace juxtaposes the immense pride Americans have for the flag with the mundane usage that it receives in advertising or on smokestacks. These two parts of Arthur Grace’s America, one, comically capitalistic, and the other, powerfully patriotic, have become the lens through which I look at my own nation.
When flying, a flag can be seen on two sides. From the perspective of my Latino heritage, I see those stars and stripes representing employment and the opportunity to support a big family. With entirely different circumstances, my Jewish point of view is focused on the underpinnings of the American beliefs in freedom and expression. The symbolism of the flag is different for everyone who views it, and that is one of its strongest powers: being something everyone can relate to.
As much as I love the American flag for personal reasons, from a design perspective, it is flawed in one way: it cannot be drawn by a child with a box of crayons. This one simple test is the true mark of a perfect flag, and the American flag falls short. There are simply too many stars for it to be crayon-able. But many great flags are similarly afflicted. The Union Jack, for example, is almost stellar, but what child knows that it is not horizontally symmetrical. Or the Mexican flag—beautiful, bold, and impossible to scribble. There are, in fact, perfect flags, unmistakable even in chicken scratch like the elegant Swiss flag and the simple beauty of the Japanese hinomaru.
To me a flag is a poem. At first it presents as simply beautiful, but with time and knowledge of its history, a flag unfurls the silky layers of its meaning, its true power. A flag can be glossed over, or it can be analyzed and decoded and still maintain its original beauty. Flags tell a story, a history of a place, and that is why I am still fascinated by them.