Face Flags of Washington, Part 3: Seattle

Seattle, like its encompassing county and state, is represented by a flag with its namesake’s face — in this case, that of the Suquamish Chief Si’ahl (anglicized as Seattle). Si’ahl lived from c. 1786 to 1866. One photograph of him survives (detail above), taken by  L.B. Franklin in 1864.

Flag of Seattle, adopted 1990

The flag was ostensibly designed by Boeing engineer and Seattle councilman Paul Kraabel (1933-2016), and adopted by City Ordinance 28207 on 16 July 1990:

A RESOLUTION expressing the intent of the Mayor and City Council of Seattle, to celebrate the best of athletic achievement and artistic expression through the City’s sponsorship of the Goodwill Games and Goodwill Arts Festival, and declaring Seattle to be The City of Goodwill, and adopting a city flag.

The Goodwill Games were an international sports festival created by Ted Turner to promote cultural exchange between the Soviet Union and the US in reaction to the Olympic boycotts of the 1980s. 2,312 athletes from 34 countries competed in Seattle and other Washington cities in 1990, the first time the games were held in the US.

(Did a Boeing engineer actually design — in any detailed way — this flag? It seems doubtful, as the complex design appears to be the work of a professional graphic designer, but perhaps Kraabel was skilled in this art. If you know the story here, please contact us as info@portlandflag.org.)

As on the King County flag, the face on the Seattle flag is highly stylized, taken from the city seal. The seal itself has a long and interesting history, documented in detail by Fred Poyner IV in a 2009 article in Columbia Magazine. It was the result of extensive lobbying in the 1920s and 30s by Seattle sculptor James A. Wehn (1882-1973). In 1933 a commission was set up to update the city seal, prompted by the opening of the Seattle Art Museum in Volunteer Park and Wehn’s observation the “the cornerstone of the new building would be an excellent place for a city seal”.

Wehn’s design for a city seal was similar to the one he had proposed in 1928. At its center was a profile of Chief Seattle, whom the artist continued to regard as central to Seattle’s founding and historical identity. J. D. Ross had suggested to him that the figure should be “a noncontroversial subject” and that “one pioneer could not be singled out without offending others.” From this standpoint, a profile of the Suquamish chief was an excellent choice. Beyond all that, the image of Chief Seattle was stamped in Wehn’s memory from the time when, as a young boy in 1896, he took a trip with his father and mother to visit Suquamish, “where a great number of Indians lived and where Chief Seattle is buried.”

Wehn’s profile design nearly abandoned in favor of a full-face likeness of Chief Seattle, but ultimately prevailed upon intervention by Wehn and the city’s arts community.

Wehn’s design, adopted 1937.

Wehn’s design was featured on an earlier, unofficial city flag patterned after the state flag, created in 1943 by councilman Frank McCaffery.

McCaffery’s unofficial flag, 1943.

Wehn died in 1973. As Poyner notes:

The artist’s death coincided with a renewed effort by the Seattle Board of Public Works to create a new city symbol and develop a “corporate identity program.” In response to this perceived need for city government to have a cohesive look throughout its various departments, the David Strong Design Group unveiled a trio of new logos in July 1974. One of these, based on Wehn’s official seal design, presented a silhouette profile of Chief Seattle, albeit rendered with highly stylized lines and curves.

Revised seal design by David Strong Design group, 1974.

This is the likeness of Seattle that appears on the current flag. The problem, however, is that the current city flag appears… nowhere. Athen Nguyen lays out the need for a new city flag in his Medium essay Seattle needs a new flag and 12s prove it: How the ‘12th Man’ flag fills the void of a quality Seattle flag:

When Seattle City Council doesn’t fly the flag of the city that it serves, that means something. There is a reason that we almost never see the Seattle flag but see the 12th Man flag everywhere. As it stands, the Seattle flag is aesthetically unappealing and needs a redesign that represents a more modern Seattle.

For one, the current flag is overcomplicated. Although distinctive, the undulating lines are an eye sore that would be impossible for your average Seattleite to replicate. This breaks one of the most important principles in design by ignoring the power of simplicity. […]

Another problem with the flag is that it was designed for the Goodwill Games, rather than for city alone. It is for this reason that we see the “City of Goodwill” on top of Chief Seattle. Although the Goodwill Games were undoubtedly one significant event in the history of Seattle, this is not true today — especially considering that the Goodwill Games ended in 2001 after losing millions of dollars and political relevancy following the fall of the USSR.

This points to another design problem by imposing on another key principle of flag design: no lettering or seals. When a flag has to resort to the use of letters rather than using meaningful symbolism, it is already failing as a flag.

Couldn’t have said it better ourselves. (And we are sorry to note that Athen Nguyen died tragically at the hands of a drunk driver this January, at age 22.)

For more on the Seattle city flag, see:

Riley Raker’s redesign.


Face Flags of Washington, Part 2: King County

Washington state’s most populous county, King, also uses a flag with a face on it: a stylized portrait of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.


The flag was adopted in 2009 after over 20 years of efforts, lead by African American politicians and civil rights activists Ron Sims and Larry Gossett, to re-affiliate King County with Rev. King rather than its original namesake, US Vice President William Rufus Devane King.

It’s a fascinating story:

William R. King (1786-1853)

1852: The Oregon Territorial legislature creates King County, naming it after Buchanan’s VP who had just been elected. King was a wealthy plantation owner from North Carolina who owned over 500 slaves in Alabama. A follower of Andrew Jackson, he was one of Alabama’s first US senators upon that state’s admission to the union in 1819. He served as VP for only 45 days in 1853 until he succumbed to tuberculosis.

Co-sponsor Bruce C. Laing (l) with Ron Sims.

1985: Ron Sims is elected the first African American county councilor in Washington, to the King County Council. Sims promotes the idea of prominent political journalist Shelby Scates to “rename” the county to honor MLK. With support from Republican ally Bruce Laing he leads a successful effort in 1986 to adopt a motion to this effect, stating that MLK much better represents the ideals to which current residents aspire much better than does an obscure 19th century slave owner.

Systemic racism was apparent in the debate, however:

The motion did not sail through unopposed. One councilmember stated that the council should “leave the historical record alone”. Several citizens defended the slaveholding vice president, with one calling “him a ‘marvelous man’ who cared deeply about adequate housing and ‘proper nutrition’ for his slaves”, and another presenting the argument that back in the original King’s time, “it was no different to own a slave than it is today to own a microwave”. A snarky Seattle Times piece said, “I’m sure we all feel much better now that the King County Council has changed the name of King County to King County,” and finished by asking, “when are we going to rename our state after Booker T. Washington, and dump that other slave-owning, historical-blemish, George Washington”. (Michael Schein, Renaming King County to Honor the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)

Flag of King County, 1987-2006.

1987: Council ordinance 8227 specifies: “The official King County flag shall consist of the county logo of a gold crown and encircling double gold rings on a rectangular green background.”

County councilman Larry Gossett soliciting support to change the county logo in 2000. (From a 2017 essay by county records management specialist Rochelle James.)
The question of William King’s sexuality had become introduced into the debate.

1999: Larry Gossett, who replaced Sims as the only African American councilman in King County, begins pushing for the county logo to be changed from a crown to a likeness of MLK. Debate again ensues, with opponents pointing out that without action by the state legislature King County was still officially named after William, not Martin, King — local government actions notwithstanding. Furthermore:

Perhaps the most surprising element of the debate, however, was raised by a Seattle lawyer, Jason Kelly. Kelly noted that William King was probably homosexual, which would have made him in all likelihood the first gay American vice president. [King had had an intimate relationship with bachelor president James Buchanan, living together for 14 years.] If true, then as the county moved toward honoring an African American the concern was that it might be disrespecting the gay community. (Schein)

This objection that renaming the county would be an anti-gay slight was ultimately dismissed by the gay community, with Seattle gay activist Dan Savage declaring “I think ‘out’ gay people are embarrassed by bad gay people. Anybody in the 19th century who owned slaves when they should have known better is by definition a bad gay person”.

Gossett and Gov. Gregoire unveil the new logo, March 2007. (Photo by Grant M. Haller/Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

2007: Gossett’s proposed logo change is finally adopted. In 2005 the legislature after persistent pressure  (eight tries by state senator Adam Kline) passed a bill renaming the county. Despite the bill passing unanimously in the senate and by a 2/3 majority in the house, there was vociferous opposition. The Seattlish blog wrote in 2015:

The change — which would require new logos across County paperwork, on the uniforms of Sheriff’s deputies, and new emblems on official buildings, would cost around $500,000 which, naturally, plenty of people thought of as “a waste.“

Interestingly, it was the logo change in 2006 (and not the actual change of namesake in 1986) that seemed to rile most people. And while basically none of us are missing the $500k it cost to make the changes (nor have I ever heard someone pining for that fucking crown), at the time, plenty of people were very upset at what they saw as a political ploy by Sims (who did later go on to work for the Obama administration because duh, conspiracy).

“Dr. King should be spinning in his grave with embarrassment now that Ron Sims’ idiocy, corruption and contempt for the public will all transpire under the cover of King’s own image,” wrote Stefan Sharkansky for Sound Politics.

”It’s very insulting to the memory of the original Vice President King to have the county renamed, in his name, to that of MLK. Even if MLK was a more historically important figure, isn’t there some other way to honor him than by simply capitalizing on the fact that he shares the same last name as that of the county and a former VP?” wrote another commenter.

[…] Still, the logo change passed handily.  The only two who opposed were Republicans Jane Hague and Kathy Lambert […], who said their main concern was — are you ready for this? — that King’s estate could come after the county for royalties if the logo was ever used commercially.

Guess what? They didn’t.

There was also celebration, as Seattlish continues:

The logo, which was phased in over a five-year period (yeah, this whole story actually just ended in 2012, like almost 30 years after it all began) was revealed in 2007 in a much more celebratory manner than the actual change in namesake ever was. Community members gathered to see the new design and praise the decision by the Council.

In making the change, King County became the first government in the United States whose logo was the likeness of a civil rights activist. The County also took another step toward directly confronting a history of fucked-up treatment of people of color.

Sims, Gossett, and Council Chair Dow Constantine unveil the new county flag at a MLK Day celebration in Seattle, January 2009. (Photo by Dan DeLong/Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

2009: The new county flag is unveiled. It’s interesting to note that the words “King County” were added to the flag despite not being mentioned in its definition, which reads: “The official King County flag shall consist of the county logo of a likeness of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on a rectangular green background.” (Ordinance 15378, enacted 2006). Ordinance 15700 (enacted 2007) defines the logo as having the text attached, however.

One of Gossett’s arguments was that since the state seal features Washington’s likeness, and Seattle’s features Chief Sealth’s, it was only fitting that the intermediate jurisdiction of King County should also feature a likeness of its namesake. In Part 3 of the Face Flags of Washington, we’ll look down one level, at Seattle’s seal and flag.

Face Flags of Washington, Part 1: State of Washington

The state flag of Washington stands out among its brethren:  not only is it uniquely green, it uniquely bears the likeness of an actual person.  People appear on many US state flags, but other than on Washington’s they stand for generic farmers, pioneers, etc. (Many believe the figures on Kentucky’s flag are Daniel Boone and Henry Clay, but this is unsanctioned by any official document.)

The flag of Washington state. Designed by a committee of the Daughters of the American Revolution, officially adopted 1923.

Just in case the viewer is unfamiliar with George Washington, the Daughters of the American Revolution in designing the flag have helpfully included the entire state seal, which identifies itself with a circular inscription: THE SEAL OF THE STATE OF WASHINGTON 1889.  Alas, for the extremely literally minded, we are left with a flag that could be read as saying that it is a seal.

A Washington state seal.

Confused yet?  As a public service, we offer the following improvement:

Just to clear up any confusion.
Just to clear up any confusion.

Flag trivia books like to say that Oregon’s is the only double-sided state flag, and there is no denying that a (poorly rendered) beaver is different than a bunch of text and a seal.

Oregon’s double-sidedness.

However, the Washington flag is often also made to be double-sided, so that the seal appears the same on both front and back, with George always facing left (towards the hoist on the front, away from the hoist on the back).

This adds complexity to manufacturing, as a seal must be sewn onto the back of the flag.  So many inexpensive Washington flags are simply printed onto fabric, which makes the reverse look like this:

Back (reverse) of the Washington flag if printed on fabric.
Back (reverse) of the Washington flag if simply printed on fabric.

Where does the image of George come from? Washington’s flag represents a rare intersection between the worlds of flags and postage stamps, as noted by the Secretary of State’s office:

The emblem on the state flag is the state seal, which was first designed in 1889 by Olympia jeweler Charles Talcott. Talcott used an ink bottle and a silver dollar to draw the rings of the seal, and then pasted a postage stamp in the center for the picture of George Washington. His brother L. Grant Talcott lettered the words “The Seal of the State of Washington 1889” and another brother, G. N. Talcott, cut the printing dye. In the seal used on the state flag, the picture of George Washington has a blue background and is encircled by a gold ring with black lettering.

To conclude, here is a sampling of proposed alternative flag designs for the Evergreen State, from the Vexillology Wiki:

See also:

Bellingham, Washington adopts a flag

After a little over a year in limbo, Brad Lockhart’s winning entry in the Downtown Bellingham Partnership’s flag contest has been officially adopted by the city council of Bellingham, Washington.

bellingham flag2
Brad Lockhart holds the Bellingham flag he designed on a city rooftop at sunset. Photo by Tommy Calderon, published by The Bellingham Herald.
Lockhart posing with the city council, in “this historic photo of the city’s first-ever flag”.  From the Bellingham City Council Facebook page.
The symbolism of the design.

For more information about municipal flag improvement efforts in the US and Canada, see our Municipal Flag Improvement page.

The Wavy Symbolism of Potamological Vexillology—in Puerto Rico

By Carlos Alberto Morales Ramírez
Vexilloid Tabloid #63

Potamology—a branch of physical geography—is the study of rivers (think hippo-potamus, “horse of the river” in Greek).

Within physical geography (the subfield of geography that studies natural phenomena in Earth’s hydrosphere, biosphere, atmosphere, and lithosphere through space and time), the study of rivers is found under hydrology (the study of water in all its forms) or under geomorphology (specifically fluvial geomorphology, which deals with the formation and functions of streams).

Continuing my interdisciplinary approach in vexillology, I’ve explored the representation of rivers in flags through wavy bands.  For this inquiry I looked at the flags from Puerto Rico’s municipalities as a case study.

Wavy bands in flags can be seen at the national level—Kiribati and British Indian Ocean Territories—and at the municipal level—St. Louis (Missouri, U.S.A).  The symbolism of these wavy bands is typically associated with a body of water—ocean, sea, or river.

This is not the only way that a body of water can be symbolized on flags; however it is the most frequently used.  Of the 78 municipalities in Puerto Rico, six have wavy bands alluding to a river in the area.  In addition, Río Piedras, a former municipality now part of the capital municipality of San Juan, also has a flag with a wavy band.

camuyCamuy’s flag has a white wavy band interrupted by the Taíno sun.  This band represents the Camuy River, which runs east of the municipality and serves as a boundary between Camuy and Hatillo (the municipality directly to the east).  This river submerges for a stretch and then re-emerges to the surface within the municipality.

quebradillasQuebradillas, the municipality to the west of Camuy, has a flag with two quarters with green and white wavy bands.  These represent the small streams, the Guajataca Lake (a manmade lake south of the   municipality, shared with San    Sebastián and Isabela), and the  river of the same name.  The river here also serves as a boundary   between Quebradillas and the   municipality to the west, Isabela.

san-sebastianThe flag of San Sebastián places the wavy band diagonally, dividing the green and red sections of the flag.  The band represents the   Culebrinas River, which originates in the mountains of the municipality of Lares and runs diagonally through the center of the municipality southeast to the west.

mayaguezSimilar to San Sebastián, Mayagüez has bands that represent a river that runs through the municipality, the Yagüez River.  This river originates in the mountains of the municipalities that border Mayagüez to the east, Maricao and Las Marías.  The Yagüez River runs east to west, emptying into Mayagüez Bay.

juncosThe Valenciano River is represented by blue wavy bands on the flag of Juncos.  This river flows northwest through the municipality until it meets the Gurabo River, a tributary of the Río Grande de Loíza (literally “Big River of Loíza”), the largest river in Puerto Rico.

rio-piedrasRío Piedras also has a wavy blue band representing the river that gives the location its name, Piedras (stones) River.  This river marks the boundaries of this area in the municipality of San Juan.

I left the Corozal flag for last because a variant version includes river symbolism.  The shield on the flag incorporates wavy bands representing the Corozal River.  This river is a tributary of the Cibuco River that empties in the Atlantic Ocean in the municipality of Vega Baja.  According to the Flags of the World website, the official flag of the municipality does not have the shield on it, nor does the municipality’s official website mention the shield on the flag.  However, images of variants of the flag bearing the shield can be found.

As “honorable mentions” I include the flag of Guánica, where the bands represent the Guánica Bay, and the flag of Loíza, where the wavy bands allude to Loíza as a coastal municipality and having the widest and most abundant river on the island.

Rivers are an important system for humans—as a source of drinking water, food, transportation, ecosystem dynamics—and play an important role in the hydrological cycle.  Puerto Rico has 224 named rivers—most of them tributaries of other main rivers—the majority rising in the island’s central mountain range Cordillera Central.

When using flags as instructional tools, it is interesting to explore the ways in which rivers are given importance and symbolism throughout vexillology.  Not only do they refer to their local importance or natural phenomena, but they also serve as tool for understanding the concepts of political geography (concerning boundaries and subdivisions) and location.

On each of these flags—literally “a river runs through it”.

Carlos Morales is a PhD student in Geography, currently studying at the National University of Singapore


“Hello Internet” on Flags

Hello Internet is a popular podcast on a variety of topics by CGP Grey and Brady Haran. Flags are a recurring theme. Mike Burnfire has been animating a number of their vexillological discussions on YouTube:

Learning from Labrador

By Scott Mainwaring
Vexilloid Tabloid #63

The flag of the Canadian region of Labrador—the mainland portion of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador—is enjoying a resurgence of interest and adoption, flying at the border crossings with Quebec and at the city hall of the provincial capital of St. Johns.

The flag is documented particularly well in the online Flags of the World database (crwflags.com/fotw/flags/ca-nl-lb.html), thanks to a concise 2002 essay posted there by its designer, Labradorian and former provincial legislator Michael S. Martin.

The case of Labrador’s flag provides a number of useful lessons for flag adoption.

First, the 1974 flag was a labor of love by Martin, his wife Patricia, and a close circle of friends—not the result of a bureaucratic process or referendum.

Second, the Martins did not initially make just a few flags to display.  Patricia, “the Betsy Ross of Labrador”, sewed 64—enough for every town and village in Labrador… and then some!

Last, it provides a word of caution about copyrighting a flag.

A copyright-avoidant variant

Annoyed by sloppy versions being used on souvenir items, Martin attempted to enforce conformity to the original design by copyrighting it.  But this only resulted in manufacturers purposely varying the design to avoid infringement, resulting in confusion and inconsistency.

(The holders of the flag’s copyright actually encourage people “to use the flag whenever and wherever possible”.)

See also:

Your Flag (Is Wack)

Heath Cottengim has created this epic vexillological rap video.  Enjoy.


[Hook: Heath Cottengim]
Your flag is wack, your flag is wack, your flag is wack
Belgium just Germany taking a nap
I’d take it all back
If you’d just change the flag
I be on the attack
‘Cause your flag is wack

[Verse 1: Heath Cottengim]
Indonesia and Monaco, one of you has gotta go
How’s the public supposed to know
Who’s who when that shits on the pole
You’re no better Poland, looking
Upside-down like Spiderman
Next time hire a designer
So your flag don’t look so stolen
You may think I’m mad, you may think I’m absurd
But it ain’t my fault Netherlands looks like Luxembourg
So many bad flags I can’t tell them apart
Which one of these is Ireland and
Which one’s Cote d’Ivoire?
I be in the stadium
Watchin’ the game
Chad and Romania
Look exactly the same
You’d be none the wiser
If I asked you to squint
It’s like the designer
Threw out the blueprint
Not tryna to make enemies
Half the Middle East looks Yemeni
Throwing flags out like a referee
Don’t care if it’s a felony
Extortion, genocide, organ shortages, yellow fever
Are not why I take the time to call up every foreign leader
(telephone rings)
Hello, you’ve reached Prime Minister of Australia
Hey Malcolm, how come you still stealin’ from New Zealand?
I mean it. I’ll break these Union Jack’s backs
Like the Bane of flags
I’m not insane, I’m just statin’ the facts
Let’s bring it back for you amnesiacs

[Hook: Heath Cottengim]

Your flag is wack, your flag is wack, your flag is wack
Norway is okay if you can do math (do math)
If you can’t take the flak
Take it off the map
It’s as simple as that
‘Cause your flag is wack
Your flag is wack, your flag is wack, your flag is wack
Greenland pretends to not be an app
Don’t tell me to relax
I’ll watch your country collapse
Nepal gets a pass
But your flag is wack

[Verse 2: Heath Cottengim]
I want flags different, distinct and unique
Think Canada, Panama, Zanzibar and Mozambique, ayy
Wait, Mozambique has an AK?
They’re not so scary, their military’s
Smaller than Notre Dame
Although I enjoy this, let me be open
When bad shit gets hoisted, people get disappointed
Point is this message is essential, so don’t try to avoid it
‘Cause I’ll just keep roasting the globe
’till I hit the ocean (Let’s go!)
Seychelles, looking like I’m about to get my groove on
Qatar, looking like I’m bout to tear a coupon
Kyrgyzstan’s’ll work, but you gotta turn it on first
Look at Antwerp’s too long and it starts to hurt
Don’t expect apology, won’t accept low quality
Just next time respect vexillology
Try to find the strength to face the fact that
Maybe the flag needs to tend the rabbits
I’m probably preaching to the choir
But when it comes to flags I think we can
Raise the bar a little higher
To those who’d fight a redesigner
I’ll leave you looking like the guy in the Benin Empire

[Hook: Heath Cottengim]
Your flag is wack, your flag is wack, your flag is wack
Rather be Martian than live under that
Some flags have class
Others are crap
I’d start from scratch
‘Cause your flag is wack
Your flag is wack, your flag is wack, your flag is wack
Pocatello, what am I lookin’ at?
It shouldn’t have taken a rap
To convince you that
When it comes to flags
Your flag is wack

Vexilloid Tabloid #63

The Portland Flag Association publishes its newsletter, The Vexilloid Tabloid, every two months. In the latest issue you will find:

  • Learning from Labrador (Scott Mainwaring)
  • A Flag for Kaiapoi, Canterbury, New Zealand (John Moody)
  • The Wavy Symbolism of Potamological Vexillology–in Puerto Rico (Carlos Alberto Morales Ramirez)
  • An Enormous Romanian Flag Made of Light (Ted Kaye)
  • Burgees of the Portland Area
  • Art in Second Life (David Koski)

And, as always, it includes the What’s That Flag? quiz, Flags in the News (news stories featuring flags), Flutterings (highlights from the last PFA meeting), and Portland Flag Miscellany (news about Portland’s city flag).  Each new issue is sent out to our email subscribers list as a PDF attachment.  If you would like to be added to that list, just email subscribe@portlandflag.org and let us know your name, contact info (address and e-mail) and interest in flags.



Happy St. Patrick’s Day to VIBE

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, we would like to celebrate one of our favorite vexillological associations, VIBE (Vexillology Ireland / Brateolaíocht Éireann). They publish a fantastic newsletter (latest issue here), and have an active page on Facebook. Catch them on Twitter at @FlagsIreland.

Here is a sampling of photographs they have posted to their Facebook page.