When was the last time you saw someone with a Maine state flag tattooed on their … whatever?

Never?

There’s a good reason for that.

“When people really embrace the flag that represents them, we start seeing it as a tattoo,” Ted Kaye said in an interview Wednesday from his home in Portland, Oregon.

And when they don’t, they go for something simpler. In this neck of the woods, maybe a pine tree. Or the North Star. Or both.

Kaye is the secretary of the North American Vexillological Association, or NAVA, a far-flung group of flag lovers currently rooting for L.D. 687, “An Act to Restore the Former State of Maine Flag.”

Their support for the measure is twofold: They love the original Maine flag, which hasn’t flown since 1909, while they rate Maine’s current state flag somewhere between mediocre and “Um … where are we?”

“Basically, there are 24 state flags that have a (state) seal on a blue background,” Kaye said. Collectively and derisively, NAVA refers to them as “SOBs,” or “seals on a bedsheet.”

Maine’s flag bill, sponsored by Rep. Janice Cooper, D-Yarmouth, would officially resurrect the state flag that flew only from 1901 to 1909. It’s striking in its clarity – a green pine tree in the center and a blue North Star in the upper left corner, all against a buff background, also known as the flag’s “field.”

By making the switch, Maine would no longer languish under a flag that, from a distance, looks almost identical to those of New Hampshire, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Montana … the list goes on.

Instead, we’d have a banner that meets all of NAVA’s criteria for good flag design: simple enough for a child to draw, meaningfully symbolic, no more than three colors, no lettering or seals and, last but not least, distinguishable from any other flag anywhere.

Cooper’s bill drew no opposition during a hearing Tuesday before the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee. Still, many predict that lawmakers will not approve the new flag without a flap.

A primary objection raised thus far in online forums: The current flag was used by Maine soldiers during the Civil War. To discontinue its use now, opponents say, would be to dishonor their sacrifice.

Or not. As Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap told the committee, state lawmakers who adopted the current flag in 1909 likely assumed, as did so many other legislators in SOB states, that it was “nurtured by the blood of our forebears who fought beneath it in a desperate effort to save our Union.”

The problem, Dunlap said, is that “the record simply does not support that thesis.” A closer look back reveals that “the volunteer regiments mustered from the many regions of the state had a broad variety of flag designs.”

So much for historical fidelity.

David Martucci, a flag expert and former president of NAVA who lives in the central Maine town of Washington, has been trying since the early 1990s to get Maine to switch back to its original standard.

Before the Civil War, Martucci said in an interview on Wednesday, flags were no big deal in this country. But in the 50 years or so after the war, that changed dramatically.

Why so?

“Flags are a tradition from the earliest times to try and organize people into their various identities,” Martucci said. “Sometimes we call it tribes, sometimes we call it nations, whatever identity we’re searching for.”

Kaye agreed: “If you boil down to one symbol to represent the tribe that you belong to, then that symbol is important to you whether it’s a city, a state, a country, a school, a military unit, a company. As humans we’ve come to a cultural agreement that some kind of colored, rectangular cloth is the way we’re going to represent ourselves to ourselves and the rest of the world.”

Back in 2001, NAVA conducted a survey of its members and anyone else who wanted to chime in to determine which are the best flags among all 50 states, the Canadian provinces and the various territories.

Out of 72 flags, Maine ranked 60th with a score of 3.39 out of a possible 10. Notably, none of the SOB flags scored above 4.

The winner? New Mexico, with its red symbol of the ancient Zia sun against a rich, yellow backdrop. The two colors respectfully match those used in the national flag of Spain, illustrating the thought that goes into a seemingly uncomplicated design.

That’s easier said than done: Wyoming, which finished 23rd, had the right idea with the silhouette of a bison against a backdrop of blue (the sky), red (Native Americans) and white (purity and uprightness). But then they slapped the state seal on the side of the bison – at first glance, it looks creepily like an elaborate shooting target.

The original Maine flag, if approved, would undoubtedly rank right up there with New Mexico. The green pine tree, noted Martucci, dates back to the “tree of the great peace” planted almost 400 years ago by Hiawatha and other leaders of the Iroquois Confederacy; the North Star symbolized both Maine’s northernmost position among the states (at the time) and the navigational skills of our mariners; and the buff field recalls the color and popularity of tanned deer hide among America’s earliest patriots.

And some people complain that the original Maine flag is too simplistic.

“Just because a flag design is simple doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a complex meaning,” Martucci said.

With or without the Legislature’s blessing, Martucci predicts the original flag will ultimately prevail. He’s already compiled a list of eight flag manufacturers – five in Maine and three from away – who already see enough demand to be making and selling the flag to an ever-growing market.

As for all the handwringing by the status quo crowd, Kaye points to the “mere exposure effect,” which holds that people’s preference for a certain thing is rooted in their familiarity with it.

Kaye’s advice for the Maine Legislature?

“I think they should adopt the new (old) flag,” he said. “And I predict within six months, we’ll start seeing the tattoos.”

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]


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