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As LA's Flag Turns 91, We Ask Again: Is It Good Or Garbage?

The city flag of Los Angeles includes a vertical zig-zag color pattern of green, yellow and red, with the city seal in the middle.
LA's City flag
(Courtesy City of Los Angeles)
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When you think about the official flag of the city of Los Angeles, how does it make you feel? Did you even know the city has an official flag?

Well, it does, and there it is at the top of this story in all its glory.

As the flag celebrates 91 years of officialdom on July 22, 2022, we're revisiting a question I first asked my newsroom colleagues in 2019.

What's your first flag impression?

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Here's a sampling of what they had to say (edited for style and obscenities):

"Ouch, my eyes."

"Benetton versus crafting scissors. There are no winners here."

"It looks like it was made with Microsoft Paint."

"That's the real flag? Honestly, I like how it's... nothing. I like nothing about it."

"I unreservedly love the L.A. flag. Haters need to take a look in the mirror."

"This flag says to me that it went through a weird Rasta phase, got lazy halfway through and then copy and pasted the seal of the city in the middle."

"(Looks) like a Del Taco burrito wrapper."

"This would look great on a pair of Zubaz pants."

"They could use that flag to test for color blindness."

"F***ing horrifying."

And yet, this is the official flying, flapping emblem of the city of Los Angeles. We figure it's time for some flag self-reflection.

For example, what do the colors represent? Is it a traffic signal? Fire danger levels? A tribute to Rasta? What's up with the zig-zag pattern? What's that in the center? And just, why? WHY? Here we go.

The L.A. City flag flaps in the wind between the U.S. and California flags
(Ryan Fonseca

The History Of The 'Fiesta Flag'

The first thing to know about L.A.'s flag is that the city doesn't have a detailed history of how it came into existence. What is known, according to old city council files, is that its creation was an effort brought by the La Fiesta Association in 1931 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Los Angeles' founding.

It was designed by Roy E. Silent and E.S. Jones, two Angelenos with names that sound like pseudonyms and bring up zero relevant search results on the internets.

Dubbed the Fiesta Flag, the design was officially adopted by the City Council on July 22, 1931, with nothing more than a "hereby declared" and a joyless description. That's basically all we know, because there aren't many public records available from that time, according to Michael Holland, an archivist for the city of L.A.

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"It just shows that we don't know that much about our city flag and that's a shame," he told LAist, adding that the city council served as more of a "rubber stamp" for local organizations at the time.

"[Organizations] pretty much did what they wanted, showed it to the council and the mayor and they said, 'OK, thank you!' and took whatever credit they wanted for it," he said. "I think the flag represented more of what the organization behind it wanted to commemorate."

Holland believes that if city leaders at the time "had actually gone through the trouble of creating a flag from scratch... they would have made a good, standout flag."

But Wait, There's Symbolism

The story the Fiesta Flag tells is, essentially, a history of fruit, and who called dibs on the land from the time Spanish settlers took it from the indigenous Tongva people.

The stripe colors have dual meanings, according to the city's short blurb about the flag. They represent three major California crops — green for olives, gold for oranges and red for grapes — but also reference L.A.'s roots in Spanish and Mexican culture, with the green and red found in Mexico's flag and red and gold in Spain's.

Then, slapped in the center is the official city seal. Each quadrant of the coat of arms signifies a different period of L.A.'s governance: the United States, California Republic, Mexico and Spanish colonial rule. And around that coat of arms are renderings of — wait for it — olives, oranges and grapes.

So why the zig-zag pattern between colors? There doesn't appear to be any record of symbolism there. Maybe the designers thought they looked cool.

The same day the city flag became official, the city's Municipal Art Commission spoke out, arguing it was a work of art that required their attention and approval under the city charter.

Then-city attorney Erwin P. Werner disagreed with that classification, and wrote back (a month later), declaring that "the official flag of the City of Los Angeles does not come within the definition of works of art," and so the commission members didn't need to concern themselves.

Art is in the eye of the flagholder.

A 'Failed Image' Flapping In The Breeze?

Did all those flag facts just made you think, "meh, so what?" That's sort of the sad point: it's hard to find many people aware, much less excited about L.A.'s flag.

That even includes City Hall. When LAist reached out in 2019 to the offices of each city councilmember and Mayor Eric Garcetti to get their takes on the historic city emblem. Not a single one of them got back to us.

Simply put, L.A.'s flag does not spark pride and unity in the city — and that's why it's a "failed image," according to Ted Kaye, who literally wrote the book on flag design.

In that book, Good Flag, Bad Flag, which Kaye compiled for the North American Vexillological Association (vexillology is the study of flags), he outlines five key principles to make a good flag:

  • Keep it simple
  • Use meaningful symbolism
  • Use 2 or 3 basic colors
  • No lettering or seals
  • Be distinctive or be related

L.A.'s flag falls short on two of those principles, Kaye explained. First it's not simple, and that's due to its second violation: no lettering or seals.

    From left to right the Denver flag has two red pieces lined in white to symbolize mountains with a yellow "sun" circle between the peaks. The Portland flag, center, has blue and yellow lines meeting to form an off-kilter cross. The Chicago flag has five red stars in a line in the center with light blue stripe above and below on a white background.
    The city flags of Denver, Portland and Chicago (left to right) showcase good flag design, according to vexillologists.
    (Photo collage by Kitty Luo/LAist, courtesy Flickr Creative Commons)

    "My personal opinion is Los Angeles has a stunning, distinctive flag, if it simply didn't have the seal in the middle of it," Kaye told LAist. "The green, yellow, red, vertical orientation of the stripes, and the serrated divisions between them make it instantly recognizable and distinctive from all other city flags that I know of."

    If L.A. ditched the seal, "it would have a great, winning design," he said. "I've come to believe that the seal represents the government and the flag represents the people... the flag should not have a seal. It should represent everybody in Los Angeles."

    Could L.A. Change Its Flag?

    Yes, if there were enough public interest and political will. In recent years, residents from cities all over the U.S. have lobbied their local governments to change their flags, Kaye explained, due in part to a popular episode of the design podcast 99% Invisible and a related TED Talk from show host Roman Mars.

    There actually was a local effort a few years back to redesign L.A.'s flag, though with a few hundred petition signatures, it didn't get very far.

    Some residents down in Orange County did have success recently, though. The city of Anaheim adopted a new flag last year, ditching the city seal and huge lettering for something less busy and more symbolic.

    What questions do you have about Southern California?

    Updated July 22, 2022 at 6:00 AM PDT
    This story was updated to mark the 91st "birthday" of the flag.