More than 30 years after a city employee sketched it at her kitchen table, the “Flying W” has become a Waco icon on par with the Suspension Bridge and the ALICO Building.
The calligraphic “W,” with a right arm looping back into a star, appears on everything from water towers to T-shirts and tattoos.
In fact, enthusiasm for the symbol has reached such a pitch that its trademark owner, the city of Waco, is taking steps to rein it in.
City officials have seen increasing demand to license the “W” for Waco-themed merchandise and has put the kibosh on some uses because of the danger of diluting or sullying the city’s brand.
“It’s become a problem recently as Waco has become more popular, and we have an increased issue of people trying to use the ‘Flying W,’ ” City Attorney Jennifer Richie said. “It’s a valuable trademark we’ve had for well over 30 years, and Waco residents and consumers associate it with us.”
The city attorney’s office has warned businesses to stop using the logo in their advertisements and signs to avoid confusion. Earlier this month, the office sent a cease-and-desist letter to Bruce Huff, a community activist who has started an anti-littering campaign called the Group W Bench.
The group’s logo included the “Flying W” sitting on a pile of trash, but when Huff tried to get it printed on T-shirts, a
print shop owner asked for city permission to use it and was denied.
“A ‘W’ on a pile of trash does not convey our image in a positive manner,” city spokesman Larry Holze said.
Holze makes decisions on licensing issues.
Huff revised the graphic last week to a more generic “W,” and Richie agreed that it was not a trademark infringement.
Huff said the original design was meant to promote community outrage at the blight of litter and illegal dumping.
“I’m surprised it took this long,” he said of the city’s letter. “I intentionally did that at the beginning to snub my nose at the whole process. I did it in a comical fashion to get people’s attention.”
Huff said the city’s “W” is a beloved logo.
“I like it,” he said. “It’s almost like the eagle. It’s very majestic. It’s also graphically pleasing. I’ve etched the symbol in the sand in Galveston last year. I’m very proud of what it represents.”
Holze said he has granted permission to six to eight companies to use the “Flying W” for T-shirts and other merchandise but only if the items promote Waco in a positive light and are unlikely to cause confusion.
For example, he has turned down the use of the “W” on baseball caps because people might think the wearer is a city employee.
On the other hand, Richie said the city has no objections to heavily altered adaptations of the symbol, such as the upside-down “Flying W,” topped by a bear, that The Bear Mountain outdoors sports store uses on its sign.
Waco-based Congress Clothing is among the licensed users and has been making “Flying W” T-shirts for a decade.
Demand for the shirts has escalated in the last few years because of surging Waco pride, firm co-owner Genevieve Peel said.
“The customers are a mix of Baylor kids and local Waco people,” Peel said. “With the rise in popularity of Waco, we’ve had a lot of out-of-town customers. . . . People recognize it as Waco. There’s more pride in living in Waco than there was 10 years ago.”
And there’s something about the logo itself that’s memorable, she said.
“When things are classic, they’re classic,” Peel said. “From a design standpoint, it’s simple. The more you can simplify something, the better it is.”
That simple design didn’t come easy.
It was the creation of Carol Perry, who was the city’s public information officer from 1984 to 1992. She said then-City Manager David Smith asked her to design it.
“He came in the office and said, ‘I think it’s time for a new logo. Would you do one for us?’ ” Perry said. “Talk about your dream assignment. I said, ‘Yes, I’ll try.’ I went home and thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ ”
Perry said she started clipping examples of “W’s” from various publications and experimenting with her own.
“I had everything from Williamsburg to Whataburger,” she said.
Perry already practiced calligraphy as a hobby and was enough of a font buff that she had a whole book on ampersands. She reached back to the Middle Ages for a Latin script called Uncial.
Starting with the looping Uncial “W,” she tried adding a heart inside, signifying the Heart of Texas. She decided the heart was “too saccharine,” so she subbed in a Texas star.
Smith liked the result and took it to the Waco City Council for approval, and Perry waited anxiously for the verdict.
“With design, you always hold your breath,” she said.
The council reviewed it and approved it with little comment.
“I was over the moon,” she said.
Since then, the cult of the “W” has slowly grown in Waco.
Perry said she knew she had created a real icon when she saw it tattooed on the wrist of a fast-food teller in the drive-thru line. Perry snapped a photo with the young woman’s permission.
Matthew Abel, a technician with Allen Samuels in Waco, said his “Flying W” tattoo also caught Perry’s attention when he was at the Common Grounds coffee shop one day. Abel’s “W,” which he got in 2013, is filled in with a picture of the Waco house he grew up in.
“Me and the tattoo artist were brainstorming, and I wanted something to symbolize home,” he said. “I liked the design of the Waco ‘W.’ ”
Abel said he’s planning eventually to add a Waco skyline behind the “W.”
Perry said the “W” is especially popular at Baylor University, where she is now a senior lecturer in journalism, public relations and new media.
“I know Baylor students really embrace the design,” she said. “They show up in those shirts to class all the time. When I see a student with one of those shirts, I tell them, ‘I really like your shirt.’ One said, ‘I think there’s a professor who designed this.’ I said, ‘I think you’re right.’ ”