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Apple's "Pirates Of Silicon Valley" Flag Gets Rehoisted

Legendary graphic designer Susan Kare recreates a computer counter-culture icon.

Apple's "Pirates Of Silicon Valley" Flag Gets Rehoisted
[Photos: courtesy of Susan Kare]

One of the most definitive and defiant pieces of counterculture art to ever come out of Silicon Valley is now available for purchase. Susan Kare—the designer behind all of the Mac's beloved early iconography, as well as its prominent typefaces like Chicago—has recreated the Pirates of Silicon Valley flag, which was used to inspire the original Macintosh team as they worked to create the first graphical user interface-driven personal computer in history.

Even if you've never seen the flag before, you're probably familiar with the term Pirates of Silicon Valley (if only because it's also the title of the Noah Wyle and Anthony Michael Hall biopic about the early days of Apple and Microsoft). The story of how Steve Jobs and his team of Macintosh engineers became known as the Pirates of Silicon Valley is legendary. At an offsite meeting with the original Macintosh team, Jobs set up his pad, laying out three maxims for the team to live by: "Real artists ship. Better to be a pirate than join the Navy. Mac in a book by 1986."

The Macintosh, of course, shipped in 1984; the first "Mac in book," on the other hand, missed Jobs's ship date by a full three years. But the "Pirates" comment caught on immediately. To the assembled engineers and designers, it allowed them to romanticize 80-hour work weeks and frustrating development schedules in the context of being renegades against the establishment.

So Steve Capps, a programmer working on the Macintosh team who was also an amateur tailor, sewed the team a black flag, and asked Susan Kare to paint it. Then, in the middle of the night, they snuck into Apple's headquarters and hung it from the Macintosh building to egg on the Lisa team across the street, which, at the time, was designing a next-gen Apple computer that was the very antithesis of the Mac.

"The Mac and Lisa teams were right across the street, so they had a rivalry with each other," Kare tells me. "It was a different time. If history had gone another way, the Lisa might have been as influential as the Mac." But the Lisa wasn't as influential as the Mac. In fact, when it was released, it was a dud, and even during development, tension between the Mac and Lisa teams was extremely high. So perhaps it's not so surprising that the Lisa team stole the original pirate flag. To this day, no one knows where it went; it survives only as a background element in vintage photos.

Asked why she decided to recreate the flag over 30 years later, Kare says that it was at the request of a new Apple employee. "A few months ago, I got an email from within Apple from someone who really identified with that flag, and asked if I could make him a new version to hang in his cubicle," Kare tells me. "In his email, he told me, 'I didn't come to Apple to join the damn Navy.' So he wanted the flag to remind him of why he came to the company in the first place."

According to Kare, the new version of the pirate flag was recreated by referencing old photographs, and painting it freehand in acrylic just as she did the original. "I maybe even used the same brushes," Kare laughed, pointing out that she also did it on her dining room table, just like the original. It might not be exactly the same as the original, but it's literally as close as you can get without traveling back in time."

Does Apple still represent the renegade spirit of the original flag? Kare says it's not for her to say, although she thinks it's significant that a new Apple employee wanted one. "It was important to him because of what it represented," Kare says. "I would hope that someone would want it because the spirit it represents mirrors their current experience."

The Pirates of Silicon Valley recreation is now available to purchase through Susan Kare's site in two different hand-painted variations. A 3-foot-by-5-foot recreation of the flag, hand-painted by Kare herself, costs $1,900; a 4-foot-by-6-foot version costs $2,500. That's expensive, but each of these is bespoke, and should ship within three to four weeks of purchase. And for some Apple fans, that'll be a small price to pay for a piece of Apple history.