During the Utah state and Salt Lake City flag competitions, residents fall in love with Grant Miller’s dark-horse design that heavily clowned state symbols and imagery.
SALT LAKE CITY—As Utah’s campaign to select a new state flag nears completion, vexillologists, along with amateur flag artists and state lawmakers, are having a moment.
In recent years, local politicians have initiated two distinct campaigns to refresh the Salt Lake City flag and the Utah state flag. City and state officials, aligning with a longstanding state tradition of civic involvement, crowdsourced the community to submit designs, which ranged from boring and amateur to goofy and puzzling.
But it’s the ascension of a particularly satirical, intentionally absurdist, and troll-type design that has injected some silliness into what would normally be a bland bureaucratic process.
“Utah has this weird obsession with flag contests. It’s this historical thing that dates back to the 1960s when the Deseret News held a flag contest for the new Salt Lake City flag,” lawyer and aspiring vexillologist Grant Miller tells Southwest Contemporary. (Vexillology refers to the study of flags, including their role in history as well as the science behind their composition and symbolism.)
It’s Miller whose design caused an internet sensation when he debuted his masterpiece on social media. The design, starkly dissected horizontally by a sharp Utah ski slope, features an array of curiosities. Among them, a Tyrannosaurus rex, donning a beanie, skiing down the hill flanked by a flutter of seagulls and a wild fish doing a sick flip on a snowboard while holding a gun.
The flag also includes a silhouette of a yellow-leaved tree, which stands out from a jagged mountain range next to a Dutch oven filled with cherries and onions. In block letters, the word “industry” adorns the bottom third of the flag.
Miller sent his wacky submission to the municipal flag competition, kickstarted in 2019 by Mayor Erin Mendenhall. In a shocker, she didn’t go for it, and instead selected a Salt Lake City flag that’s composed of horizontal stripes of light blue and white with a sego lily symbol on the upper register.
“My flag is very bad by modern vexillological standards,” he says, noting how the best flags should be relatively simple and easily recognizable from a distance.
Miller’s inclusion of certain details stemmed from his wife’s visit to the Utah State Capitol, where she discovered a statute listing Utah’s various official designations, ranging from state bird (seagull) to state firearm (Browning M1911), which the state fish (Bonneville cutthroat trout) clutches in Miller’s design.
“To me, the reason why the flag is so ridiculous is that I’ve included all the symbols you could possibly illustrate,” he says. “It’s meant to show the ridiculousness of these categories.”
After slapping it together one afternoon in Photoshop, Miller posted the image on social media, where it swiftly became a hit. And although the selection didn’t make the final cut for the municipal contest or the state competition, Miller’s flag gained momentum as a cult favorite.
His design caught the eye of local figures and politicians such as Salt Lake City councilwoman Amy Fowler and former Congressional candidate Shireen Ghorbani, who even donned a shirt showcasing Miller’s crazy design. Local news podcast City Cast Salt Lake encouraged listeners to purchase the shirt, with proceeds going to the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, an area nonprofit aimed at exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals.
Meanwhile, a new state flag is pending final approval by the industrious folks within the Utah State Legislature. Utah’s first flag came to being fifteen years after statehood in 1911 and was subsequently amended in 1913 and 2011. These modifications, specifically ones involving community submissions, became a regular fixture for civic leaders, par for the course in a state full of rugged entrepreneurial minds.
In 2020, state senator Daniel McCay commenced plans to create a new statewide flag. After hiring a graphic designer and bringing forth a preferred option, the legislature encouraged McCay to elicit public feedback on this most monumental decision. This led to the introduction of Senate Bill 31, which passed in the Utah State Senate by a 17-10 vote on Monday and now heads to the Utah House of Representatives. (The 2023 regular session of the Utah State Legislature opened January 17 and is scheduled to continue through March 3.)
The current iteration of what McCay calls the “Beehive Flag” was amended from an earlier, more militant, quasi-confederate design that would eventually become the 125th-anniversary flag. And while the newer design isn’t to everyone’s liking, it appears to strike the sort of hip and modern vibe McCay is going for.
The new proposed flag features a bright yellow beehive—the most cherished of Utah’s symbols as the “beehive state,” a reference within the Book of Mormon—framed within a hexagon. Beneath the beehive symbol is a star representing the state’s eight federally recognized tribal nations. The central symbol is flanked by a white stripe comprising the flag’s center, the jagged outlines of which mimic Utah’s majestic mountains. A blue stripe on the top third of the flag symbolizes the night sky, while the red band on the bottom third nods towards the majestic red rocks of Southern Utah.
In a graphic that seems to confirm that Utah earnestness might as well be satire, McCay relayed in a January 22 tweet that the old flag is to business attire what the new flag is to hanging with your buddies during the weekend.
According to Miller, McCay sent him an email in the months before McCay’s preferred design took center stage during the 2023 legislative session, relaying his appreciation for the cult favorite still on everyone’s minds. Although Miller’s design didn’t make the final cut, his graphic survives in the hearts of admiring fans eager to inject some fun into an otherwise arduous process.