The Art and Stories Behind the Morale Patch
A brief statement about the words, "morale patch".
On May 25, 2016 Morale Patch Armory LLC filed to trademark those words with the USPTO. After an initial opposition filed by retailer Violent Little Machine was rejected due to a technicality, the “morale patch” trademark remained valid and standing for a number of years. In 2020, Prometheus Design Werx discovered that the initial opposition had been rejected and no progress had been made in its cancellation, as a consequence of Morale Patch Armory LLC filing to sue a large group of retailers for unauthorized use of “morale patch” in the course of conducting their businesses. On September 17, 2020 Prometheus Design Werx INC filed a “Motion to Suspend” the trademark “Morale Patch”, as it was their strong belief that these words were public domain and in wide use prior to Morale Patch Armory LLC’s trademark filing. On August 18, 2022, the USPTO granted the cancellation. Morale patch is no longer a trademark, can be used by anyone and everyone, and is back to being public domain.
A conversation with Patrick Ma, morale patch innovator and CEO of Prometheus Design Werx.
Since humans first walked the Earth, we've found ways to tell our life's story through symbols. Going back 40,000 years, our ancestors used dirt or charcoal mixed with spit and animal fat to paint symbols on cave walls to narrate hunts and tribal associations.
Lhfage at English Wikipedia, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Nearly 15,000 years ago, early settlers in the New World etched their stories on limestone and sandstone to serve as trail markers or to identify their clan. And more than 5,000 years ago, humans started putting their tribal symbols and personal stories on a more mobile platform: their skin. Vikings inked family crests on their bodies. Medieval Europeans tattooed a cross on their hands as a permanent badge of honor and religious fealty during the Crusades. By the 1800s, these tribal and military symbols had morphed into unit insignia on military uniforms. British military officers began wearing embroidered patches to signify rank. Americans soon adopted the concept and started using patches to distinguish between military unit divisions.
Zaphad1, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Those symbolic patches catapulted into a new era In February 1997 when Patrick Ma created his first morale patch. Ma was also one of the first, if not the first, to design outdoor apparel that allowed users to attach hook patches to loop panels (Velcro). Ma, who founded Triple Aught Design and later Prometheus Design Werx (PDW), has created thousands of morale patches, many of which are still sought after by collectors.
Q. What inspired you to start designing morale patches?
Patrick Ma: I've always been fascinated with symbols because each design represents a much deeper story. As an explorer and designer, I think symbols are a story's simplest but most profound distillation. My interest in these compact forms of embroidered art can be traced back to my childhood in rural Pennsylvania. The parents of one of my best friends were avid junkers. Almost every weekend, they were out looking for various antiques and knick-knacks. I got to tag along and quickly became captivated by the old patches I saw on military uniforms. I'd buy a cool patch, here and there, when I could. My interest in patches kept growing when I got into high school and college. With each military patch I'd get, I'd spend time in the library trying to research its history and the stories of the units associated with each patch. I'd collect patches from everywhere. Skate brands. Head shops. Law enforcement. You name it. I enjoyed getting patches that identified with all of these various tribes, cultures, and subcultures. Back then, Velcro loop panels for morale patches on apparel or packs and bags outside the military or law enforcement circles were non-existent or uncommon. I'd have to stitch the patches on my backpacks, jackets, bags, or whatever I could. Patches have become a new way of expressing ourselves. Whether that was belonging to an elite unit to simply showing a more whimsical side of our nature. My fascination with morale patches was ongoing, so I decided to start making them soon after launching Triple Aught Design in 1996.
What did your customers think of those first morale patches?
People picked up on them very quickly. They proved to be really popular, and demand started to climb. I think people wanted "badges" to showcase their association with a meaningful tribe. As humans, I believe we have an innate, instinctive nature to belong to a community. Morale patches became the new visual narrative of our unique and personal journeys. I think a morale patch's appeal is that it's a passive marker of our identity. A morale patch isn't as overt as a T-shirt with a catchy slogan. Because a morale patch is small and uses symbolism instead of words, I think it represents a silent, confident display of your identity. If someone gets it, they get it.
If they don't…well, maybe they don't deserve to know.
Now, looking at many of my designs, you're often not going to find a lot of seriousness. I like to impart a certain degree of levity. Our world is serious enough, and I believe we all need to step back and laugh at ourselves. Otherwise, we will be brittle, dark, and unhealthy human beings. I don't know about you, but I need to laugh several times a day, including at myself.
How do you come up with your morale patch designs?
It all goes back to my fascination with symbols and iconography. Symbols are potent markers of different aspects of our lives, and our lives can be whimsical or serious. Many of my ideas are entirely random, but they are vision-based on what story I can convey through a symbol. What I mean by that is we primarily process information through our eyes. Vision is such an important sense for humans because it funnels much of the world into our brains. That's why I can be inspired by a sticker on a street sign or graffiti on a brick wall. Or a cool magazine cover I see at the grocery store checkout. What catches my eye and demands my attention? And, of course, a lot of my inspiration comes from nature.
Once I got my inspiration, I used to take a pencil or pen to paper and start drawing. I'm an old-school artist at heart. I would take that initial concept and hand sketch every design. When I had a design I liked, I'd complete the illustration in pen and ink. I eventually moved to digital using tools like Illustrator and Procreate or Fresco. Those platforms have allowed me more flexibility to alter designs without erasing or starting all over. Digital illustration has become an efficient and empowering outlet for expressing my creativity. The entire process, from inspiration to finished patch, typically takes 3-4 weeks.
Do you do all of the designs yourself?
Over my 25 years of patch designs, I'd say I've pretty much done 99 percent of them myself. I have allowed some staff to try their hand at patch designs from time to time over the last two years.
Of all the morale patches you've created, is there one most desired by collectors?
Probably our most sought-after patch is our SPD Underwater Exploration Team patch. SPD stands for Special Projects Division. It's a subdivision of PDW that allows us to explore smaller and experimental production runs. Our Underwater Exploration Team had its first mission in 2016 in the Sea of Cortez.
We worked with the Mexican government as part of an anti-poaching project. Mexican fishermen, sponsored by a drug cartel, were setting out gill nets in protected waters. Their job was to snare a species of fish whose bladder is sold on the Chinese black market for up to $10,000 per bladder. It's insane. Our mission was to identify, locate, and clear those illegal fishing nets and trolling lines. I chose the octopus to represent my SPD label for its unique characteristics and special place in the animal kingdom. Octopuses are amazing creatures. Genetically speaking, they're unique, making some scientists think they're not of this planet.
They can change color, have natural camouflage, and have terrific eyesight. Plus, they control their body's shape with water pressure so they can morph into all kinds of crazy forms and move through the tiniest of crevices. Octopuses are also incredibly smart and have the biggest brains of all invertebrates. They are problem solvers, and research reveals that they even have a form of consciousness. It's not entirely on par with primates, but it is far more advanced than any similar species.
In a nutshell, the octopus has so many unique attributes that I figured it would be the perfect symbol for our SPD. I added a trident because it is the tool most associated with the ocean. Additionally, higher-level creatures, such as the octopus, use tools to solve problems, and we were using tools to remove harmful elements from the ocean. I also included a Japanese-style wave motif element in the background to tie it all together.
After creating more than 800 designs for PDW, do you have a favorite patch?
I'd have to say my current favorite design may be the All Terrain design and the many variations of that artwork.
With that patch, I wanted to create a symbol that visualizes the beauty and majesty of the outdoors: water, trees, mountains, sun, and stars. The sun's rays can be seen as sunrise or sunset. The design also highlights the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) constellation. This constellation has a rich history and significance to those who live and love the outdoors.
It is part of Native American lore and has been used as a navigational aid for centuries by nearly every culture. I also included water because it is a critical element to survival, and it's the molecule that binds together everything I treasure. It is the embodiment of peace, quiet, and strength. However, water can also be terrifying. Still waters run deep…but they can also drown you.
What is it about PDW morale patches that make people want to collect them?
I think it's because I always strive to have a narrative associated with each design. I look at each morale patch as a small canvas I can use to tell a story. Fortunately, those visual narratives resonate in some meaningful way with those who buy and collect them. Morale patches can tell an abbreviated story, a window into a lifestyle.
They may be vignettes or, at the very least, references to an alignment or tribe. The patches are often created as a nod or wink to popular culture and various subcultures, but they always seem to create a positive visceral reaction to our lifestyles.
What are some interesting ways you've seen your patches displayed or worn?
As the designer who first originated technical apparel with loop panels for the general population in 2000, I was able to create a wearable platform to display morale patches.
Photo Credit: Black Flag Summit Club
That has allowed people to showcase their PDW patches in pretty cool ways. I've seen them mounted on walls, backpacks, IFAKS, admin pouches, hats, and even laptops.
Photo Credit: @thecarryist
Basically, if you have a loop surface or one that mimics a loop, you can slap a morale patch on it. One of the more innovative platforms I've seen lately is attaching our morale patches to a car's headliner. I think that's a pretty cool way to personalize your ride. Keep in mind we also do other variations of "morale patches" including what I coined as "ranger eyes" or cate eyes" back when I first came up with them.
These are simply smaller format patches made typically in TPU or PVC (we use the BPA-free, non-toxic kind) and feature a very high detail for their rather diminutive 1" size. They've proven to be just as popular as the embroidered style.
Most PDW morale patches are sold as product drops every Wednesday. And most are sold out within minutes. Why do you think that is?
Making our newest patches available at a set date and time allows the serious collectors a crack at getting something exclusive before it disappears. We try to generate a sweet spot between demand and collectability. Still, at the end of the day, we produce what we produce. It's that simple. If we make too many patches, people seem to lose interest. If we don't produce enough? Well, bring on the "haterade." The weekly product drops give people a good chance of getting the patch they want, but I also know not every person who wants one will be able to get one. I strive to make as many of our customers as happy as possible. Still, I also know I'll never be able to make everyone happy all the time. There's almost an endless list of patch suppliers now and days and many artistic styles to shine just about anyone's buttercup. I have a particular style to most of my designs, if you like them great, if not, there's plenty to choose from, and from all over.
At the end of the day, get a morale patch design simply because it makes you happy. Enjoy it for what it is.