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Sitting Down with Meng Yang

Know Your Flag framed prints at Inkling. January 2012. Chicago, IL. (Photo Credit: Zachary Johnson)

Meng Yang is an artist passionate about Chicago history and bringing it to the public through graphic design. His current project, Know Your Flag, puts the Chicago flag’s substantial symbolism on display in the form of two-tone screen prints. From The Chicago Fire to aesthetics, Meng manages to include nearly all of the flag’s sometimes unexpected referents in his screen prints. Last week, I sat down with Meng to learn more about his interest in Chicago history and his background as an artist.

Zachary Johnson (ZJ): What inspired you to focus on your current subject matter?

Meng Yang (MY): It’s been almost two years that I’ve worked on Know Your Flag, and I think part of it was just out of creative frustration. Before, I started a little t-shirt company called Support Your Local Industries. It was all little t-shirts that said things like, “Support your local tattoo parlor.” or “Support your local craft brewery.” After a while, I just felt it just lacked a spine. So, I started delving into Chicago history and found it was a lot more rewarding.

Meng Yang. Know Your Flag (4), 2011. Screen Print. Chicago, IL (Photo courtesy of Meng Yang)

ZJ: Have you been interested in themes of localization or local culture for a while?

MY: I think so. I think it’s an overall attitude right now, like how a lot of people are supporting the Shop Local movement. I think that ties into the bigger picture of globalization and things being made in other countries. Having a little small piece of art, made locally, to me makes a difference.

ZJ: How did you get into screen printing?

MY: I took a class at Little Street and had a really good time there even though I wasn’t that good. Then I wanted to continue learning it, so I started taking sessions at another studio, and it just snowballed from there.

ZJ: Where do you print now?

MY: I get my posters printed at Delicious Design [League], and I feel like that’s the good and bad of being a designer. You want to have time to design, but at the same time, you still have to produce it. So, right now I’m more focusing on design and having production done by someone else.

ZJ: You said originally you moved to Chicago for college. Where did you go and what did you study?

MY: I went to the Illinois Institute of Art and studied Graphic Design. I graduated around 2006. My parents were from Michigan, so we would on occasion drive to Chicago when I was a kid. The little snippets of Chicago that I knew were from that. Then it was just by random coincidence that I decided to move here.

It’s working out. There’s a great community here. With silk screening, I was afraid that there were people who’ve been doing it for so many years, so [I thought], if you’re new, what’s the initiation? How do you get involved? But it’s been just so welcoming.

ZJ: What have people’s reactions been to Know Your Flag so far?

MY: When I first started Know Your Flag I thought, “Wow, the Chicago flag’s so cool. How can I present it in a way that people would be interested?” I figured if I think it’s cool, there have to be other people that think so too. So [when I sold them] at the Renegade Craft Fair, what was really neat was just hanging up the artwork and having people come by. I guess I educate them a little bit about what I do — not too much, just conversationally. Hearing their reactions, I think, “I’m not the only one who thinks this is cool. Other people think so too.” Overall, it’s been very positive, very encouraging.

ZJ: Did you find anything particularly interesting or exciting when you were researching the symbolism of the flag?

MY: One, I think it’s ranked number two among the most well-known civic flags, beneath Washington, DC. It’s just so simple and it means so much, but you don’t get to see that because you have to dig in it. You know, when I first started the project, the flag meant what it meant: the first star is Fort Dearborn, the second star The Great Chicago Fire, etc. But as I got to the Renegade Fair and saw people’s reactions to it, I’ve kind of adjusted its meaning over time. So, I guess I’m always adjusting its meaning by what people tell me.

ZJ: I did have to look up salubrity when I saw that on your poster. And I’d never heard “I Will” before as a city slogan before seeing your series.

Meng Yang. Hog Butcher for the World, 2011. Screen Print. Chicago, IL. (Photo courtesy of Meng Yang).

MY: I was poking around the history and that was, I think, the official motto for the city shortly after the Chicago Fire. So, it became a moniker for “I will rebuild. I willmove forward, etc.” It’s interesting if you look at Chicago history magazines that they have at reused book stores, they’ll have illustrations of Miss Chicago. She’s supposed to represent New Chicago’s way of thinking, and she has a phoenix as her crown and on her breastplate it says, “I Will”.

ZJ: What’s next for you? Do you have any projects coming up or directions you want to go with your work?

MY: I want to expand to the Midwest region. I want to try to do something with Milwaukee or Detroit, other cities or other states — to just keep things creatively interesting.

Meng’s work is currently on display in his solo exhibition, Know Your Flag, at Inkling. The show runs until the end of January.


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