Arturo Vega: Designer who became known as 'the fifth Ramone'
Wednesday 10 July 2013
Despite their status as one of the most influential rock groups of all time, the Ramones sold more T-shirts than records during their 22 years together. A popular accoutrement with many teenagers who weren't even born when the New York punk pioneers broke up in 1996, their distinctive merchandising bears the emblematic logo designed by Arturo Vega, the band's artistic director, lighting director and friend.
In the mid-1970s Vega welcomed bassist Douglas Colvin – who had taken up the alias Dee Dee Ramone – and vocalist Jeffrey Hyman (Joey Ramone) into his loft on the Bowery as they joined forces with guitarist John Cummings (Johnny Ramone) and drummer Thomas Erdelyi (Tommy Ramone) and began performing short, sharp, simple songs like "Blitzkrieg Bop" and "Beat On The Brat" at Hilly Kristal's nearby CBGB club. Vega provided the stark photo of the belt buckle with an American Eagle used on the back cover of the Ramones eponymous 1976 debut and incorporated the eagle into the design of the group's first run of T-shirts.
He began selling them at their gigs to pay for his travelling expenses, including the group's first trip to London, when they appeared at the Roundhouse on Independence Day. After accompanying the Ramones to Washington, DC in October 1976, Vega created the Johnny-Joey-Dee Dee-Tommy logo used on the back of Leave Home, the band's second album.
"I saw them as the ultimate all-American band," he recalled. "I thought The Great Seal of the President of the US would be perfect, with the eagle holding arrows – to symbolise strength and the aggression that would be used against whomever dared to attack us – and an olive branch, offered to those who want to be friendly. But we decided to change it a little bit. Instead of the olive branch, we had an apple tree branch, since the Ramones were as American as apple pie. And since Johnny was a baseball fanatic we had the eagle hold a baseball bat."
The Ramones logo has proved a remarkably flexible design, able to incorporate the "Hey Ho, Let's Go" chant from "Blitzkrieg Bop", withstand tweaks to incorporate the arrivals of Marky, Richie and CJ, or be recycled for compilations and the packaging of the 2003 documentary End Of The Century: The Story of the Ramones.
Born in Chihuahua in northern Mexico, Vega was enthralled by the voice of Elvis Presley he heard coming out of a radio when he was eight. In his late teens he travelled to California to see live bands and attended the Monterey Pop festival in 1967. He moved to New York, intending to get involved in musical theatre, but was hampered by his lack of musical ability and his dislike of theatre people. He worked as a messenger and started painting large supermarket-style signs and swastikas in fluorescent colours, a provocative move that would endear him to Dee Dee and Johnny Ramone, the two non-Jewish members of the group who occasionally collected Nazi insignia and made gratuitous references to the Nazis in their songs.
He painted several eagle backdrops for the Ramones as well as the trademark "Gabba Gabba Hey" sign Joey would brandish during "Pinhead". Vega was a scene-maker par excellence, but also a steadying influence, able to cope with Dee Dee's drug-induced mood swings, Joey's myopia and dietary needs and Johnny's right-wing politics. He was sometimes called "the fifth Ramone", along with engineer/producer Ed Stasium and tour manager Monte Melnick. He missed two of the group's 2,263 concerts, and claimed he had "the police records" that accounted for those. "How could I pass up touring with a rock and roll band around the world to stay at home painting?" he said of their long association and his subsequent role as Ramones archivist and historian.
His recent work continued to blend words and images, while a series of paintings, Porn Is The New Rock, proved he had lost none of his ability to shock. Following Joey's death in 2001 Vega campaigned for the Junction of East Second Street and the Bowery to be renamed Joey Ramone Place. The street sign was unveiled in 2003. When I met him at a 2007 music industry convention in Norway, where he gave a talk on "Designing the Ramones", it was obvious he still embodied the group's punk spirit. Vega had mixed feelings about teenagers wearing Ramones T-shirts as a fashion statement. "That is the sorry state of rock and roll," he observed. "It's a product used to sell other products."
Eduardo Arturo Vega, artist: born Chihuahua, Mexico 13 October 1947; died New York 8 June 2013.
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