Sunday, November 19, 2017
Human Interest

Did you know Tampa's flag is a 'monstrosity'? No one else does, either

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Tampa has a flag.

It's flying over Old City Hall and Water Works Park and Tampa Police headquarters, and it was there hanging limp behind Mayor Bob Buckhorn as cameras rolled during his recent State of the City Address.

And yet, despite having been around for 77 years, that news — that Tampa even has a flag — often surprises locals.

Show it to a fourth-generation Tampa native and they might say, "Oh, that's what it looks like?" Show it to a professional graphic designer, and you may get a sneer.

There is one hanging over a cooler at Cigar City Brewing, but nobody who picked up the phone seemed to know what it was. Guillermo Perez brings his to every Tampa Bay Rowdies home game. People often ask him what country it's from.

Its bizarre shape makes it expensive to produce. Its complicated design makes it forgettable.

It does, however, have an active life on the internet. Over the years, the flag has resurfaced as an object of ridicule on Reddit and Facebook where it's called a "monstrosity." In April, after the Times started reporting on the flag's web subculture, a change.org petition titled "Redesign Tampa's Flag" appeared on tampaflag.com, a site promoting a re-design.

A night of drinking a lifetime ago spared the flag's creator from a watery grave. Sparing the city from the current flag depends on who wants it enough.

• • •

"I mean, I guess I knew we had a flag, but that thing is kind of funky. ... It's a mess," said Mario Nuñez, host of the Tampa Natives TV show. "Why did they cut the end off?"

• • •

City flags are often bad, and bad things often make for good internet.

In 2015, Roman Mars, host of the popular podcast 99 Percent Invisible, gave a rousing Ted Talk titled "Why city flags may be the worst-designed thing you've never noticed." It went viral, with millions of streams.

Mars championed the North American Vexillological Association's principles of good flags: they should be simple enough for a child to draw from memory; use three or fewer colors; and never, ever have any lettering or seals. Tampa's flag breaks all of these rules.

Tampa's flag is somewhat infamous among vexillologists, who study flags, and a recurring curiosity among flag nerds on Reddit's vexillology page. Simon Joseph, host of the Vexillogicast podcast, had never even been to Tampa when he made the city's "horribly wrong" flag the subject of his debut episode.

At the peak of city flag virality, the Tampa flag made Gizmodo's list of "the ugliest city flags on Earth," alongside Provo, Utah's former flag, which The Atlantic once compared to a label for "generic Centrum vitamins," and the flag of Pocatello, Idaho, sometimes called the "worst flag ever."

The flag of Pocatello, Idaho was so ridiculed that the city is currently voting on changing it through a design contest.

GALLERY: Good and bad city flags from around Florida and the US

Chicago and Washington D.C. are held up as cities with iconic flags, flown not only by the city, but by proud residents and businesses. Those flags appear on T-shirts, mugs and lapel pins. In Chicago, when a police officer or firefighter dies, the casket is often draped with a Chicago flag.

Since Mars' Ted Talk, dozens of cities have updated their flags, or currently have some movement toward changing them. Orlando mayor Buddy Dyer's administration recently launched a contest to redesign their flag, using language taken straight from Mars' talk. Orlando announced a finalist on Thursday.

In Tampa Bay, only a few cities have official flags. Clearwater, Largo and Pinellas Park all fly what the flag community calls S.O.B.s, for "seals on bedsheets," or uninspired flags using the city seal on a plain background.

St. Petersburg has the area's most recognizable flag. Although the pelican over a field of multicolored bars representing the land, ocean and sky has been called out online for being "dated" and, at least once, for "looking like the title screen to a 1980s PSA," its simpler design has allowed for use on everything from city vehicles, to letterhead, recycling bins and storm sewer covers.

The city of Chicago's flag recently turned 100.

• • •

"After eight years in Tampa, I couldn't have picked it out of a lineup," said Gabe Aluisy, founder of Tampa's Shake Creative design firm. "There's just a lot going on. You want a flag to be simple. Memorable. This is anything but that."

• • •

Some people think they see a stealth bomber when they look at Tampa's flag, but few notice the "F," which stands for Florida. The sideways "T" for Tampa and "H" for Hillsborough are somewhat more obvious.

The center is an outdated version of the city seal, featuring what's commonly mistaken as a pirate ship. It's actually a historically-inaccurate depiction of Henry B. Plant's boat, the Mascotte, which was a squat, steam-powered vessel that traveled between Tampa and Cuba carrying passengers and tobacco.

GALLERY: Homemade designs for a new Tampa flag

That original flag hangs in the city clerk's conference room, which is where city councilman Mike Suarez would see it when he was council chairman.

"It has been bugging me for 10 years. Every time I see it, I think, what a god-awful ugly flag," said Suarez, who served as flag bearer for the Tampa flag at Fiesta Day in Ybor City recently. "I was proud to carry it because I'm proud to represent our city, but I'm not proud this is the flag that represents our city. And by the way, I'd never seen this flag before I looked it up when I decided to run for office. I can't recall seeing it as a child, or as a young adult."

Suarez would love to see the flag changed to something more representative of Tampa.

"I think we could make some great designs, with the water, and the history we have, and we could really promote it. In other places, they use their flag in their activities and functions and it's an important part of their civic life. This is something I've been interested in doing, but if we're going to talk about it, we should have an all-out effort."

He did expect at least one group to oppose changing it, though.

"I guarantee you, his descendants are going to say 'please don't take it away.'"

St. Petersburg adopted its current flag in 1983.

• • •

"Interesting, for sure," said Richard Hughes, chief creative officer at ClearpH design in St. Petersburg. "Is that? It looks like Algeria, or something?"

• • •

Surprise: Tampa's flag was not designed by a professional artist.

Frank Grant Whitney was an accountant who moved to Tampa during the depression after a boss in another city fired him for refusing to cook the books, his family says.

Whitney liked to draw, and he designed badges for local clubs for fun. He presented his homemade flag, incorporating the flags of Spain, Great Britain, France, Italy, Florida and the United States, to mayor D.B. McKay in 1930, who, according to a city archives document, "officially accepted" it a week later. Whitney, it was noted admirably in a 1974 rededication of the flag, was not paid for his work.

The flag was a point of pride for Whitney's family. When his son died at 93 in March, the obituary mentioned his father designing the Tampa flag "which still flies today." His granddaughters keep a Tampa flag at their home in DeFuniak Springs.

But those granddaughters, Christine Guzowski and Marilyn Whitney, have never lived in Tampa. They'd understand if the city changed it.

"It's their city, so it's their flag," Guzowski, 64, said. "I can see why they might want something ... simpler. I mean, he was an accountant, not a designer, so what can I say?"

The flag isn't even the most interesting part of their grandfather's story.

Frank Grant Whitney was hired to work as an accountant by the Persian government in 1912, Guzowski said, but was forced out of the country by the Russians and English.

"On his way home, he and two other men had tickets on the Titanic, but one of them went to too many bars the night before," she said. "When he didn't show up in the morning, rather than leave him, they traded in their tickets. He married our grandmother a year later."

• • •

"Well, I think the shape is pretty unique," said designer Marc Berenguer, of St. Petersburg's Hype Group. "Actually, on second thought, that's probably a bad thing."

• • •

Out of the 224 people who had taken a survey on tampaflag.com as of last week, 92 percent said they supported changing it. They're less sure of how it should be done, and what a new design should look like.

Robert Creighton, 26, creator of tampaflag.com, has since moved to Philadelphia for grad school. He favors an open competition, in which anyone can enter and anyone can vote.

Orlando recently held a design contest to replace this flag.

But Suarez cautions that it needs to be done carefully. Longtime Tampa residents also said a redesign should be taken seriously as a symbol of civic pride, with a serious reverence to Tampa's history and traditions.

"If you leave it up to the public, you really have to retain some control. Otherwise you could end up with a Boaty McBoatface," Suarez said, referring to the winning name when the British government let the internet pick a name for its $287 million polar research ship.

"Tampa is developing," Creighton said. "It's a great time to start forging that identity as a city with something to offer and I think a flag can be really representative of our identity. Think about the California flag. It's on hats. It's on stickers. It has meaning to people who don't even live there. It's an idea."

All of those points may be moot. Unlike the city seal, the flag is not in the city charter, which means the mayor has the power to adopt a new one at any time without council approval, administration officials said. Even if a city council member introduced a motion, it would ultimately be up to the mayor.

Apparently, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn is not interested.

"The mayor has more pressing things to focus on than the flag right now," said spokesperson Ashley Bauman.

Supporters of re-designing the flag were sympathetic, but said this: as Tampa faces its most pressing challenges, why not have a symbol to rally under?

And the internet has rules of its own. New designs have already started appearing online.

Contact Christopher Spata at cspata@tampabay.com. Follow @SpataTimes on Twitter.


 

 

     
 
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