Red and White, but Mainly Blue: Flag Post, 2021

retired flag box in small cemetery
The flag’s not dead! … but it probably had a rough year like the rest of us. Retired flag box, St. Nicholas Cemetery, Reserve Twp.

“The guy who painted that died before he could finish her face.”

The speaker, an older gentleman, I didn’t get his name, is a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 556, in Vandergrift. That is a sidewalk bench in front of the post on 11th Street; her is the Statue of Liberty. The familiar figure is striking her iconic torch-raised-skyward pose and has been sketched-out and blocked-in with a background gray.

It’s nearly complete, but the little detail painting is indeed missing all features of Lady Liberty’s face, leaving her head in ghostly negative space. The folds of Liberty’s flowing robe also seem only half there and we can imagine the finished work detailed in a patriotic blue to contrast the backrest’s red and white stripes. But … we’ll never know if that was the artist’s original intent.

detail of wooden bench painted with red and white stripes, Statue of Liberty, and "USA"
“The guy who painted that died before he could finish the face.” Faceless Statue of Liberty flag bench (detail), Vandergrift

All American Transmission, inhabiting a cinderblock garage just off Millvale’s main drag, has been on our list for as long as we’ve been collecting stars and bars. The giant flapping American flag painted across the shop’s north-facing side wall is what this Independence Day series is all about–created by hand, patriotic, but maybe a little bit … off.

As many times as we tried, the big mural was never available for a proper photo shoot. Inevitably, either the surrounding chain link fence would be locked tight or vehicles were parked in the lot such that we could never get a clean angle on the wall.

After years of loitering on North Ave., we finally got the opportunity last fall and … the light was all wrong. Backlit and hazy under a half-cloudy sky, the effect was to throw a shadowy blue cast across the whole scene. Under The Orbit‘s typical hard-assed standards this photo would never make the cut–but this isn’t a typical year.

mural for All American Transmission Company with company name in giant waving American flag
Red and white and blue all over. All American Transmission Co. flag, Millvale

When we started to review this year’s collection of flags, though, Blue turns out to be something of both a visual and emotional theme. The set of American flags spotted on long, early morning “blue hour” mental health hikes and various walk- and ride-abouts taken over the last 12 months took the melancholy hue more often than not.

A row house in Polish Hill with pale blue aluminum siding covered in viny overgrowth with American flags as window curtain and mailbox ornament. Sunshine spotlighting Old Glory suspended from a makeshift carboard-covered windowpane against a blue-gray staircase. A fishing boat, its nose pointed skyward, decorated like an American flag (but missing the stars) photographed so early on an overcast morning the entire frame is in a still-dreaming blue pallor.

row house window overgrown with vines showing American flag used as a curtain inside
Flag curtain, Polish Hill
small window covered in cardboard with American flag sticking out
Cardboard window screen/stairway flag, Sharpsburg
small boat painted like the American flag
Flag boat, Reserve Twp.

They’re sad flags on a sad year. Six hundred thousand Americans dead of coronavirus–almost all of those since the previous Fourth of July. A population still unsure what the new world is going to look like; whether we’re all going to be sent back in the hole by the Delta strain; if we even know how to communicate with other human beings after 15 months in the bunker.

Rest assured, not every new flag in the Orbit‘s cross-county travels involved a deceased artist’s unfinished masterpiece or the shroud of mental fog. We came across plenty of well-lit, full sun, American flag-like things decorating private clubs and garden walks, identifying street addresses and hung from picture windows. But on a year when blue is the prevailing mood, red-and-white just doesn’t feel quite right.

brick wall with inlaid tile to look like American flag
Missing a few stars. Tiled flag wall, Cave Club, Wheeling, WV
decorative fence painted red, white, and blue
Flag fence, Wellsville, O.
spray-painted American flag with the text "The system is broken"
“The system is broken.” Graffiti flag, Color Park, South Side
mailbox painted red, white, and blue
Flag mailbox, Reserve Twp.
row house window decorated with multiple American flags
Flag window, Lawrenceville
window decoration of red, white, and blue wreath and American flag
Flag wreath/tribute, Lawrenceville
window decoration made from clothes pins painted like the American flag
Clothes pin flag, Polish Hill
address marker with large eagle and American flag
Home address placard eagle/flag, Reserve Twp.
bench painted like the American flag
Flag bench, Wellsville, O.
cement garden tiles painted like the American flag
Garden tile flag, Donora
hand painted American flag taped to glass door
Window flag, Lawrenceville
metal protective plates on alley utility pole painted red, white, and blue
Flag utility pole guards, Sharpsburg
handmade American flag made from recycled wood attached to brick house
Ragged flag, Stanton Heights
row house with wooden window cover painted like the American flag
Cellar window cover flag, Etna

Finally, there are plenty of those evergreens of patriotic DIY home decor: flags made from discarded wooden shipping pallets. From suburban front yards to row house back alleys, pallet flags are so common that it almost feels silly to keep the collection going. Ah, who are we kidding? In a pinch we’ll still take the pictures and serve them up like coleslaw and potato salad alongside the more prestigious Fourth of July party offerings.

These got blue, too. Often taken in those same getting-the-head-together pre-dawn hikes, but maybe just existing in year where everybody lost something, even if we didn’t lose everything, makes things turn out this way.

Happy Independence Day, ya’ll. May we all warm up on the figurative color wheel from here on out.

shipping pallet painted like the American flag, hung on alley fence
Pallet flag, Lawrenceville
shipping pallet painted to look like the American flag
Pallet flag, Troy Hill
shipping pallet painted like the American flag in front of brick house
Pallet flag, Stanton Heights
shipping pallet painted like American flag leaning against brick wall
Pallet flag, Strip District
shipping pallet painted like the American flag in front of brick house
Pallet flag, Stanton Heights

Flag Post: A Very Orbit Independence Day 2020

artwork shaped like large claw hammer painted in red, white, and blue

hammer/flag, Mars

A six-foot tall wooden sculpture of a claw hammer is mounted in the arched brickwork of a turn-of-the-century commercial building in Mars, Butler County. It is both uniquely American in its roadside kitsch oversized scale and patriotic red, white, and blue but is also tasteful, fits the unique space, and manages to subtly advertise Pfeifer Hardware without any text at all.

There is plenty of subtext, however, if one chooses to go down that particular rabbit hole. Is America the land of tools, of ingenuity, where anything can be built and anything can get done? Or is it the love it or leave it country where we either worship the stars-and-bars or feel the hammer come down?

Probably the creator of Pfeifer’s big hammer had none of this in mind. He or she may have just wanted to build a big hammer and decided to paint it in an obvious color scheme. While the jingoist use of the American flag always makes us feel a little queasy, the spirit of people taking a paint brush and star stencil to garage doors and retaining walls, porch art and–of course–discarded shipping pallets is something we’ll always get behind.

Happy Independence Day, everyone!

wooden doorway painted like an American flag

door flag, Swissvale

One year, we’ll celebrate with a post entirely composed of that evergreen of folk-art patriotism: the pallet flag. Their complete dominance of greater Kittanning/Ford City’s lawn art scene suggests we could even go hyper-local with coverage from Armstrong County alone.

shipping pallet painted like the American flag

pallet flag, Mars

shipping pallet painted like an American flag

pallet flag, Kittanning

shipping pallet painted like an American flag

pallet flag, Ford City

shipping pallet painted like an American flag

pallet flag, Kittanning

shipping pallet painted like American flag

pallet flag, Beaver

shipping pallet painted like an American flag

political pallet flag, Kittanning [note: just reporting here–Pittsburgh Orbit does NOT endorse these candidates!]

brick residential house with prominent American flag decoration

flag house, Kittanning

brick residential house with prominent American flag decoration

flag house, Kittanning

faded mural of bald eagle with American flag

eagle/flag mural, Marshall-Shadeland

section of wall mural including American flag

Allentown neighborhood mural

mural painted on cinderblock wall including American flag stars and stripes

Dougherty Veterans Fields, Etna

Row house window displays are reliably full of red, white, and blue this time of year, but The Plague has us mostly staying at home, tending vegetables in the backyard. Despite the lack of nebbing, we still managed to bag a few of these Old Glory old friends.

window with American flags

flag window, Lawrenceville

window with American flags

flag window, Lawrenceville

large plastic dinosaur lawn ornament with American flag in its mouth

dinosaur flag, Lawrenceville

skeleton decorated with green hat, Christmas garland, and American flag

multi-holiday decoration, Etna

Halloween skeleton decoration wearing long dress and red, white, and blue tie

America’s not dead … yet. Patriotic skeleton, Lawrenceville

Jeep grill made to look like American flag

grill flag, Lawrenceville

handmade sign reading "Honor the American flag"

pallet flag sign, Kittanning

Flag Post: A Very Orbit Independence Day 2019

Stars and bars for cars and, uh … more cars. Parking garage flag, Sharon.

No tanks. No flyovers from the Blue Angels. No fireworks, baseball games, or charcoal-grilled hot dogs. Not even a damn sparkler!

No, when it comes to Independence Day, The Orbit is all about the American flag—and flag-like red, white, and blue things—hopefully created by human hands and not too picky with its star count.

We’ll not blah, blah, blahbiddy, blah about the strange folk craft of shipping pallet flags or the ethical paradoxes of letting one’s most patriotic symbol peel paint or get covered in mold. Instead, it’s just wall-to-wall flags. Happy birthday, America!

patriotic dresses, J. Jones Evening Wear, Weirton, WV

pallet flag, Lawrenceville

pallet flag, Oakdale

flag/football, Steubenville, O.

porch flag, Oakdale

porch flag, Charleroi

yard flag, Follansbee, WV

yard flag, Buena Vista

play set flag, Buena Vista

wall flag, Blawnox

window flag, State Farm Insurance, Bloomfield

Uncle Sam: patriot/grill master, State Farm Insurance, Bloomfield

flag window, Bloomfield

Oakdale: America’s Home Town

Fourth of July Savings painted poster, Giant Eagle

flag, row houses, Lawrenceville

patriotic fountain, Follansbee, WV

Thi$ i$ American street art, Garfield

Vex Ed: Designs for a New Pittsburgh Flag

proposed Pittsburgh city flag by "Goob" with abstracted design based on Pittsburgh's three rivers

“Three Rivers”, Goob

In a word, rivers. That’s what people–at least, the people who took up The Orbit‘s flag redesign challenge–thought most represented the City of Pittsburgh. Map-perfect renderings of the Mon, the Allegheny, and the Ohio are colored a fantasy blue we’ll never actually see in the murky waters around here. Rivers represented by the most simple wavy-lined icon-style rippling wave forms got there too.

Last month, we introduced a contest to see if readers could come up with a new Pittsburgh flag that would avoid some of the design woes and visual no-nos in our current banner while having a bit of fun thinking about what other options might be on the table. The deadline has passed, those submissions are in, and we’ve got the results for you–right here and right now.

All the flag designs we received are good, but we really love Goob’s[1] “Three Rivers” (above)–a perfect abstracted layout of Pittsburgh’s waterways in broad gold strokes on a solid black field. It’s not city hall official, but the design is so simple and powerful that we could totally imagine this as a sort-of alternate “people’s flag” sold in street stalls in the Strip next to Cleveland Still Sucks and Heath Miller Time: The Champagne of Tight Ends t-shirts.[2] At least, we’d happily fly a version of this from the front porch of Chez Orbit.

proposed Pittsburgh city flag by Ian Finch with gold triangle and black river waves imitating the Pink Floyd "Dark Side of the Moon" album cover

“Dark Side of the Mon”, Ian Finch

proposed Pittsburgh city flag by Erik Schauer with blue river river design on existing black/gold/black tri-color background

current flag, enhanced by rivers, Erik Schauer

design sugestion for new Pittsburgh flag by Ray Strobel with blue wavy river lines

“Argent, a pall wavy issuing from sinister azure, within a bordure checky or and sable”, Ray Strobel

Several of our entrants also mind-melded on the idea of abstracting the general path and arrangement of the rivers as well as the division of the North Side/South Side/East End land masses as angular trapezoidal geometry.

Of these, River Dolfi’s submission is particularly effective as a simple, highly graphic three-color affair with an interesting symbolic narrative. Dolfi explains:

“A flag incorporating the traditional Pittsburgh black and gold. The area of the flag is split into three sections, reflecting the way the three rivers split the real city. These divisions also represent the past/our steelmaking heritage (black), the present golden triangle (the golden triangle), and our blank-canvas future (white).”

proposed Pittsburgh city flag by River Dolfi featuring gold triangle with black and white other sections

Pittsburgh past/present/future, River Dolfi

design sugestion for new Pittsburgh flag by Ray Strobel with black lines to represent the three rivers and three black hypcycloids on a gold field

“Or, between a pall issuant from sinister, three hypocycloids sable”, Ray Strobel

design sugestion for new Pittsburgh flag by Ray Strobel with blue lines representing the rivers

“Argent, a pall issuing from sinister azure, within a bordure checky or and sable”, Ray Strobel

Ian Finch, a graphic designer by day and apparent Pittsburgh ex-patriot, has turned in three cheeky numbers that are all fun. “Dark Side of the Mon” (above) falls into the river category by parodying Pink Floyd’s similarly-titled 1973 stoner/headphone classic. In Finch’s hands, the original album’s prism and light rays cover art becomes a golden triangle separating two bodies of water–one placid; the other gentle rippling waves.

“Mount Worshington” manages to jag on Pittsburgh pronunciation, one of the city’s iconic hilltop neighborhoods, and an old-school patterned tea towel to dry your hands off after all that worshing up.

While Bruce Willis and Sarah Jessica Parker have put 1993’s Striking Distance long in their rearview mirrors, Pittsburghers conjure it every time they “take Bigelow” or lead the police on a high-speed chase that ends up taking out a truckload of Iron City beer barrels. Finch’s tribute is a little harder to parse–and probably not what we as a city want to hang our hat on–but still gets marks for its clever use of the golden triangle blended with police/military stripe imagery.

proposed Pittsburgh city flag by Ian Finch with black and gold triangle mountain and cloth-woven border in blue, red, and gold

“Mount Worshington”, Ian Finch

proposed Pittsburgh city flag by Ian Finch of military-looking gold triangle and angled black stripes

“Striking Distance”, Ian Finch

“We all know that Pittsburgh is about many things, but little separates us from other towns like our abundance of bridges and pierogies,” says Paul Schifino about his pierogie-bridge flag. “Is it a bridge? Is it a pierogie? The answer is yes. My goal was to create something graphic with a simple message: We Are Pittsburgh.”

Also in this other category is another entry from Goob–this one taunting us with Pittsburgh’s history of great streetcar lines, mercilessly ripped-out in the 1960s and ’70s to everyone’s continued dismay. Sigh. Oh yeah, maybe it’s also a Mr. Rogers thing.

Ray “Ain’t Gonna Happen” Strobel thinks Pittsburgers would rather look at a big-ass insect than the current city flag. But, like Ian Finch, he’s really just riffing on the Pittsburghese n’at / gnat … we think.

proposal for Pittsburgh city flag by Paul Schifino with image of pierogie shape and bridge elements

“Is it a bridge? Is it a pierogie? The answer is yes.”, Paul Schifino

proposed Pittsburgh city flag by "Goob", with silhouetted trolley car against existing black/gold/black tri-colored background

“Trolley”, Goob

design sugestion for new Pittsburgh flag by Ray Strobel with a drawing of a gnat on a gold field

“Or, a gnat proper. (Say it. C’mon… say it. Get it? Get it??)”, Ray Strobel

The over-achieving Goob turned in two additional entries, both working from Pittsburgh’s 1925 city ordinance that brought us the current design.[3] “Three bezants bearing eagles rising with wings displayed and inverted Or,” reads the passage which describes this general arrangement of antique golden coins on a black, triangular background.

These two of Goob’s entries are probably the most legit as far as satisfying the original flag definition and something you could actually imagine hanging in the courthouse. That said, we still don’t have either the “fess chequay Argent et Azure” or the “triple-towered castle masoned Argent” that got us into this mess in the first place. So the powers that be would probably throw these entries out on a technicality, but we like them.

proposed Pittsburgh city flag by "Goob", with gold eagle-fronted coins on black triangle on gold field

“Triangle Coins I”, Goob

proposed Pittsburgh city flag by "Goob", with gold eagle-fronted coins on black triangle on existing black/gold/black tri-colored background

“Triangle Coins II”, Goob

One thing about getting into vexillology: you’re going to learn some new vocabulary. We’ve already tripped across bezant (an old Roman/Byzantine coin), sableargent, and or (the heraldic colors black, white, and gold, respectively).

Ray Strobel, who in the high-stakes poker game of Vexillology Stud saw Goob’s four designs and raised that another two, drops this kind of lingua flaga with wild flag-bearing abandon. While it would take a whole glossary to get through descriptions like “Sable, in fess on a hypocycloid or a penguin proper, two leg bones in saltire argent,” the world-wise Orbit reader will get the idea with just a good look at the pictures.

design sugestion for new Pittsburgh flag by Ray Strobel with combined logos of Pittsburgh sports teams

“Sable, in fess on a hypocycloid or a penguin proper, two leg bones in saltire argent”, Ray Strobel

design sugestion for new Pittsburgh flag by Ray Strobel with seven gold hypocycloids in rows of four/one/two on a black field

“Sable, seven hypocycloids or, four, one, and two”, Ray Strobel

Finally, Brett Yasko turns in a design that reads like a Zen koan and breaks every rule of flag design. [Brett: don’t you know not to put words on a flag? how’s that thing going to read when it’s 50 feet in the air and there’s no breeze to stretch it out??] That said, what red-blooded cat owner doesn’t like animated gifs?

This one probably stands zero chance of reaching a city council floor vote, but that doesn’t mean we don’t agree with the sentiment. It’s the ones we love that can make us uniquely insane. For anyone–perhaps everyone–who’s grown up in, spent time around, or committed-to Pittsburgh, you’ll probably share some level of understanding how the city drives you crazy because you care about it so much.

The Orbit is doing its thing–and you may well be reading about it–because we love the city that much. Whatever flag you may be flying for the city of Pittsburgh–literally or figuratively–let’s raise it high.

flag that just includes the text ""Sometimes I really hate Pittsburgh because I love it so much" by Brett Yasko

“Sometimes I really hate Pittsburgh because I love it so much”, Brett Yasko

Many thanks to all who participated in the flag redesign challenge–this was really fun. Maybe we’ll do another one along these lines in future.


[1] Presumably not his or her real name, but the anonymity has been preserved at the request of the entrant.
[2] Goob: you and me are going to make so much money! [But we’ll need a real name to make the checks out to.] [Maybe we could do one of things where I drop a manilla folder full of cash into a trash can in the park and you send an innocent rube to pick up the “drop”.] [Ahh, I don’t know if that will really work, but don’t worry–we can figure out the details.]
[3] Flag of Pittsburgh, Coat of Arms and Seal. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flag_of_Pittsburgh#Coat_of_arms_and_seal

Vex Ed: A Contest for a New Pittsburgh City Flag!

flag of the City of Pittsburgh

(Current) flag of the City of Pittsburgh. Can we do better?

The flag–any flag–should be a glorious, triumphant emblem that trumpets the twin messages this is who we are and you’re here now. It’s raised high above government buildings and hangs formally inside legal chambers. And–if you get it right–the public takes the flag into their own hands.

With a good flag, loyalists adopt its design as their own–flying it freely from front porches and attaching plastic decals of it to windows and bumpers; they paint it on garage doors and wear it in the form of track suits. Kindergarten teachers will instruct young patriots in the art of creating facsimiles from finger paint and popsicle sticks.

American flag made from recycled wood, Apollo, PA

No one makes these for the city flag. Homemade 28-star American flag, Apollo

When we talk about the flag of the City of Pittsburgh, we’re clearly not at this level of either fandom or familiarity. Do you know anyone not named “the mayor” who owns a Pittsburgh city flag? Do you ever see it flown in your neighbors’ yards or waved at public events the way people hoist the rainbow flag, Steelers banner, or the Jolly Roger? If we hadn’t included the image Pittsburgh’s flag [above] would you even be able to describe what it looks like?

My guess is you’ll answer no to each of these questions–and that’s a shame. Pittsburghers love their city and we should have a city flag we’re equally proud of.

flag pole with miniature flags of Italy, USA, and Pittsburgh

Hey: somebody’s flying it! Flags of Italy, USA, and Pittsburgh, Panther Hollow

So what’s wrong with the flag we have? Let’s start with the colors. In Pittsburgh, we accept high-contrast black and gold as natural bedfellows–like french fries and ketchup, or french fries and sandwich meat, or french fries and salad greens. The extra addition, however, of the blue and white detail in the central checkerboard crest is what really sends this palette from reckless driving into fatal collision. Nowhere should these four colors intersect–not even in Cleveland.

While the background black/gold/black vertical sections are a nice, simple, bold presence, they’re directly at odds with the completely useless design-by-committee noise in the middle of the flag. Here, a cartoonish tri-turreted castle–looking like the packaging for a child’s play set–awkwardly either floats above or balances tenuously atop the curlicue formality of the city crest.

detail of the center design in Pittsburgh's city flag including three-tower castle and crest with eagles and blue-and-white checkerboard

Detail: “A triple-towered castle masoned Argent” and “a fess chequay Argent et Azure, between three bezants bearing eagles rising with wings displayed and inverted”

Putting aside questions about why the City of Pittsburgh is represented by a medieval European-style fortress, its pairing with an embellished coat-of-arms inherited from William Pitt is particularly dissonant. [These are referred to as “a triple-towered castle masoned Argent” and “a fess chequay Argent et Azure, between three bezants bearing eagles rising with wings displayed and inverted,” respectively.]

This combination creates chalk and cheese design elements that not only have nothing to do with each other and are scaled in odd proportion, but look like they were rendered by entirely different hands. Mercifully, there isn’t any text to not be able to read in the crest, but from any distance I dare you to find anyone who can make out those “eagle-fronted bezants” flapping in the breeze.

Less is more. Same flag, less crap.

Less is more. The same flag, without the crap.

Pittsburgh Orbit will never advertise itself as a design shop, but even without the background and very limited fake-Photoshop skills, the simple removal of the junk in this flag’s trunk–that being the ridiculous castle and crest–seems like an enormous win. We’d fly that thing off the H.M.S. Orbit with pride. Further streamlined down to the bare minimum square of one each black and gold halves may be even better.

flag of the City of Pittsburgh with center details removed and reduced to two vertical black/gold sections

Even less is even more…maybe. Two-tone black/gold square.

Something clearly needs to be done around here. There were grandiose plans: a design contest! with celebrity judges! a big-reveal gala event! we could even pitch it to the city! Meetings were taken with, you know, a media partner and real designers. But…ah, hell–that’s a lot of work and you try finding a local expert in vexillology. Heck, just try pronouncing it!

All that said, the simple goal remains to come up with a banner that Pittsburghers will recognize, identify with, and fly proudly from their eves and stitch to the seats of their pants.

SO, here’s where you, dear reader and creative acquaintances of dear reader, come in. We’d love to see your submissions for a redesigned flag for the City of Pittsburgh. This blogger has no idea whether The Orbit‘s audience would support such an effort, but we’re crossing fingers and, like Casey Kasem, keeping our feet on the ground, and reaching for the stars.


Note: This contest has ended, so we’ve removed the submission details. You can see the results at our follow-up story Vex Ed: Designs for a new Pittsburgh flag (Oct. 8, 2017).

proposed flag with gold planet on black field with text "ORBIT"

Hey, it’s an option!


Background/further study: