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Bearing a rebellious streak

A Kensington man and his crew are hunting for the tattoos and tales of those indelibly linked to the defunct punk band Black Flag.

Stewart Ebersole shows off his Black Flag tattoo in the Rocket Cat Cafe Garden. (Bonnie Weller / Staff Photographer)
Stewart Ebersole shows off his Black Flag tattoo in the Rocket Cat Cafe Garden. (Bonnie Weller / Staff Photographer)Read more

In this world of the oft-tattooed, it's inevitable that multiple people will have the same design or logo etched into their skin.

But those who have the four vertical rectangles that symbolize the punk-rock group Black Flag are a special breed, says the architect behind a book devoted to the bars.

"They're never anybody's favorite tattoo, but they seem to mean the most," said Stewart Ebersole, 42, who lives in Kensington. "Everybody has a story for their Black Flag tattoo. You get a lot of, 'That band changed my life.' 'That band shaped who I am as an adult.' "

Ebersole's project, Barred for Life, is taking him and a crew of four across the country this fall as they photograph and film people with the Black Flag tattoo and record their stories. By project's end, Ebersole hopes to have as many as 500 photographs ready for a book and enough videotaped material for a documentary.

The project is being supported out of Ebersole's savings, but he hopes, in the next few months, to hold fund-raisers, including an all-Black Flag karaoke night. (For details go to

"The bars are an icon that defines a lot of people who are into punk rock," he said. "I fail to see any other icon in pop culture or elsewhere that has such devoted adherence."

Black Flag was a Los Angeles-area punk band that played together, with varying lineups, from 1977-1986. Their music sounded heavy and raw, lauded nonconformity, and encouraged listeners to rebel.

"Black Flag had a song for everything," said Ebersole, who first heard them as a disenchanted 16-year-old growing up in York. "Pissed off? Have a song for that. Happy? Have a song for that. Want to kill your parents? Have a song for that."

Songs like "Nervous Breakdown" and "You Bet We've Got Something Personal Against You!" and "I've Had It" drew fans throughout the country. (From "Nervous Breakdown": "I'm about / To have a nervous breakdown / My head really hurts / If I don't find a way out of here / I'm gonna go berserk 'cause / I'm crazy and I'm hurt. . . .")

Black Flag, Ebersole said, "was just like my [expletive] dysfunctional family."

Black Flag also had something other punk bands didn't, something that may have helped it become an icon, namely, its own in-house designer. Raymond Pettibon, brother of band founder Greg Ginn, designed the handbills and album covers, creating a distinctive look that helped brand the band.

His images, some in black and white, were stark, sometimes violent, often jarring. The logo of four black vertical bars was meant to signify the opposite of the white flag - surrender - and to play on the band's rebellious streak.

That logo ended up graffitied throughout Southern California, angering authorities and enlisting admirers. More than 20 years later, it adorns the bodies of people born long after the band split up.

"That speaks to how far-reaching and long-lasting their legacy is," said Todd Barmann, the project's editor.

The idea for the book was hatched in 2005, when Ebersole was visiting a friend and found himself among five people, all of whom had the tattoo.

In recent months, Barmann and Ebersole have talked with more than a hundred people on the East Coast about their Black Flag tattoos, including former Black Flag front man Dez Cadena (who moved over to play guitar in the band in 1981 and was succeeded on vocals by Henry Rollins). They've lined up interviews in more than 40 other cities with people who bear the bars, including American Hardcore author Steven Blush and Ian MacKaye of Fugazi fame.

Ebersole, who works for the Philadelphia Recreation Department, says he's financing the project with money he saved while teaching at a private school in Exton. He says he has spent about $2,000 on it so far and is prepared to dig deeper - to the tune of $10,000 - for the U.S. and European tours.

The bars come in all sizes, from covering someone's calf to smaller than a pinkie nail. (The latter was part of a larger tattoo that showed a clown wearing a Black Flag T-shirt.) Barmann has seen people with the bars "anywhere you can put a tattoo" except the face, and "I'm sure that's out there."

"It's four vertical rectangles, but there's a dynamic quality to it, especially if you're familiar with the band," he said.

Those photographed have ranged from about age 50 to 15. They come from all walks of life: mothers and fathers with fading ink; a former convict who recently tattooed himself in prison after hearing the music for the first time; a college professor; a research scientist; two hairdressers.

During the interviews, Barmann, of Philadelphia, said he was amazed at how often, in almost the same language, someone has explained the attraction to the bars this way: "I've always felt different. . . . Punk in general, and Black Flag, specifically, really spoke to me. It told me perhaps I was a misfit, but I wasn't the only one."

On a recent weekend, Ebersole met with Barmann and video-documentarian Marianna LaFollette in the outdoor courtyard of a Fishtown coffee shop, near his home. They were recording interviews for the documentary they hoped would accompany the book. Also involved in the project is Philadelphia photographer Jared Castaldi, who shot some of the first Barred photos.

As Ebersole showed off the bars on his legs, LaFollette and Barmann discussed how they were the only two people involved in the project who did not have the tattoo. (The other two men involved do; one of them got it this month as cameras rolled.)

Barmann, 40, said that while he always enjoyed Black Flag's music, he didn't believe in having band logos on his body. He preferred to keep the meaning behind his tattoos - he has four others - private.

But LaFollette found herself strangely attracted to the idea of getting a tattoo. Ink-free right now, the 42-year-old Washington resident said she has been tempted to add some after talking to those who are, in Ebersole's words, "barred for life."

"The Black Flag tattoo has a lot of meaning to it," she said. "It's not just marking up the skin and following a trend."