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Fleur-de-lis blooms as symbol of Katrina

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A fleur-de-lis with a banner reading "N.O. Place Like Home" was designed by Jason Middelton at Aart Accent tattoo parlor in New Orleans. The fleur-de-lis is the design of choice for thousands of Katrina victims, many of whom never thought about getting a tattoo before the hurricane. (Photo Courtesy of Aart Accent)

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Mignon Faget, owner of the popular New Orleans jewelry store franchise by the same name, models the fleur-de-lis broach she designed after Hurricane Katrina. The fleur-de-lis design is the number one seller at boutiques and other retailers across the city. (Photo Courtesy of Mignon Faget)

Yolanda Butler winced as Gregory Poefield, a tattoo artist at the Aart (CQ) Accent Tattoo Parlor in New Orleans, etched a fleur-de-lis tattoo onto her upper thigh. The three-petaled flower tied with an encircling band was her first tattoo.

“I was always too scared to get one,” said Butler, a 42-year-old hairdresser and lifelong resident of New Orleans. “I probably would never have gotten the tattoo without the hurricane.”

Butler fled the city the day before Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. She spent 10 months in limbo with relatives in Houston and returned to find her house destroyed. Once she had rebuilt her life, Butler decided to use body art with the icon of her beloved city to symbolize her rebirth.

Butler’s sentiments are shared by thousands. Since Hurricane Katrina, the fleur-de-lis, a vestige of New Orleans’ French colonial period, has emerged as an icon of solidarity among the city’s affected residents. Proliferating as tattoos, jewelry, clothing, and common household items like dishes and towels, experts say that the symbol has gained profound personal meaning for those who weathered the hurricane's devastation.

“It’s a symbol of defiance for a population that felt abandoned by the federal government,” said Marline Otte, a Tulane University professor of Modern European History who conducted 350 interviews with returning Katrina victims for a study. “Finding new rituals of mourning was the first way for people to rebuild.”

Translated from the French as “flower of the lily," the image originated as the royal seal of the French monarchy in the 12th century and later migrated to France’s North American colonies of Quebec and Louisiana. For centuries in New Orleans, the fleur-de-lis has adorned ironworks and flags, and--since 1967--the uniforms of the New Orleans Saints football team.

Mignon Faget, a jewelry store on New Orleans’ famed Magazine Street, was salvaged by the fleur-de-lis. In the depressed economy following Katrina, the company had to fire 72 of its 80 employees, leaving a skeletal staff to keep the business afloat.

“We thought we were going to go bankrupt,” said Virginia Saussy, the company's executive vice president for sales and marketing.

Less than two months after the hurricane had killed more than 1,000 residents and decimated entire neighborhoods, Mignon Faget ran an ad for a new fleur-de-lis broach. It sold out immediately, and orders remained back-logged for the next nine months, Saussy said.

“Today, it remains our No. 1 seller without a doubt,” said Saussy, whose company now has an entire department dedicated to designing fleur-de-lis jewelry. “We brought back all our employees one fleur-de-lis at a time.”

Other city retailers were also surprised by the symbol’s explosive popularity.

“I don’t know that you could put a fleur-de-lis on anything and not sell it,” said David Perlis, whose high-end clothing store, also on Magazine Street, sold about a dozen fleur-de-lis novelty ties the year before Katrina struck. Now, Perlis said, hundreds of fleur-de-lis-emblazoned items such as tote bags, umbrellas, and belts are snatched up every week.

Alecia P. Long, an associate professor of Louisiana history at Louisiana State University, likens the fleur-de-lis to the iconic images that mark other tragedies. She cited multi-colored Tibetan prayer flags and firefighters raising the American flag at ground zero after 9/11.

"It says, 'We love the city, we are committed to the city, and despite its tragedies, we still see something beautiful and profound in it,’” Long said.

The most conspicuous manifestation of the symbol’s resurgence is seen in the tattoo parlors. For months after New Orleans shops re-opened, returning city-dwellers, and even outsiders who had come to help rebuild, lined up to get the fleur-de-lis permanently inked on their skin.

“We had to get a number machine,” said Keelsey Dio, 35, a tattoo artist at The Crescent City Tattoo Company who estimates that almost three years later he still does about eight fleur-de-lis a week, up from about six a month before the hurricane.

“I could make a living just off of fleur-de-lis tattoos,” said Nixon Gallagher, 32, whose shop Pigment Tattoo has seen residents and tourists alike come in for the French design. “I’m actually kind of tired of looking at it. Though I do like how everyone has gotten their pride back.”

The fleur-de-lis mania has transcended race, class and age, tattoo artists say. Doctors, street kids and tourists number among those who want it. “Some people even come in as a family,” said Poefield of Aart Accent.

The designs have been just as varied as their human canvases. Some parlors offer a fleur-de-lis superimposed over a hurricane. Other recipients have asked for Louisiana’s indigenous pelicans and crawfish depicted in the shape of the symbol.

Still, many people, like Butler, think that the simplicity of New Orleans’ first flower says enough.

“If I ever have to leave again,” said Butler, “then I will have something to remind me of home.”

E-mail: mm3270@columbia.edu