I love the Olympics! I always have and always will, at least unless they replace the events with “competitive praying” or “hotdog eating” or some shit like that. My personal favorite events are gymnastics, men and women, the sprinting races, archery, volleyball and the track and field events like javelin and hammer throw. But I really just enjoy watching all of it: the pageantry, the goodwill, the internationalism…but especially the flags. The flags!
I am something of an amateur vexillologist (one who studies flags and banners, and their uses) and have been one since I tried to memorize all the capitals of the world back when I was a pre-teen. Yeah, I was that kind of kid: while my peers were playing with pokemon and playstation 2 and obsessing over boy bands I was looking up flags in books and copying them out on pieces of paper with crayons, markers, and strips of colored paper. My personal favorites were and are the most colorful of them, the most creative uses of shape and pattern and color. If the flag is able to capture my attention, then chances are it will soon become one of my favorites. I remember that the flag of the pacific island nation of Palau was always one of my favorites:
Said to represent the moon over the Pacific ocean, I always though that the colors were amazingly complimentary and that the look of the flag was rather expressionist verging on abstraction. And I love that.
Other flags are beautiful for their complexity rather than their simplicity. I often find myself drawn to flags with striking imagery or patterns. In the case of the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan their flag could also pass as a wonderful and quite brilliant example of medieval heraldry:
The flag itself uses an amazingly simple yet effective contrast of colors, set at diagonal angles to each other. But if that were not already enough, the amazing dragon really puts this flag into the category of vexillogical masterpiece.
Not every flag is so obviously masterful though. Some seem basic or normal upon first viewing, but become more special and interesting as time goes on. For example:
This, of course, is the flag of the modern nation of Greece. It follows a rather familiar pattern, at least to Americans, but it somehow manages to transcend its simplicity and seeming derivative sensibility to become a real classic. The combination of two common flag tropes (cross pattern and alternating colored stripes) adds a playfulness that brings a childlike, but not childish, feel to the entire composition. Match that with the use of two beautiful and simple colors and this flag transcends national banner status to become a classic of design. But not all flags are so lucky, or so memorable. Look at this flag for example:
Unless you are incredibly familiar with national flags in general I bet you would never be able to guess that this flag belongs to the great and diverse nation of Russia. Russia is essentially an imperial state made up of many different nations and ethnic groups all gathered together. This boring tricolor (the most common type of national flag out there) is perhaps a side effect of a nation that does not really have a cohesive identity or national story anymore. In the past there were Romanov eagles and bold hammers and sickles. Now there is just his white, blue, and red bore. It is almost as if Russia just no longer has the creative energy to come up with a better, or at least more memorable, national insignia. Contrast this blah banner with the flag of one of Russia’s many regions:
Now THIS is a flag. The flag of of the Chuvashia Republic, a region within the Russian Federation. With a population of less than 2 million it is not a large region, but that does not mean it cannot come up with a kick-ass flag design. The colors work together brilliantly, there are only two of them so it is not over busy, and the linear patterns combined with the gorgeous twirls and stars really make this flag a classic of design. A nation of any size would be proud to have such a beautiful emblem.
There are hundreds and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of flags in the world and not all of them are as interesting or as memorable as the Chuvash or Greek flag, but they all have a little something that makes them at least worthy of investigation. And some are down right works of art. I’ll leave you with a flag that straddles the line between gaudy and brilliant, a flag that defies categorization. Ladies and gentlemen, the flag of the African Island nation of Seychelles:
Now it’s time for YOU to tell me what you think of this flag. Please be frank…let’s all become vexillogists together!