RIP Arturo Vega: My Memories Of The Ramones Design Legend

He was an icon who became my friend. Here are some of my fondest memories and photos from the Ramones' creative director
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He was an icon who became my friend. Here are some of my fondest memories and photos from the Ramones' creative director

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I first met Arturo around 1994 in Nottingham when he sold me a T Shirt. Not just any T shirt, but one that over the last decade has become one of the most iconic, celebrated and recognisable designs of recent times.

It was one of the Ramones last ever tours, too young to catch the first time around when they wowed members of virtually every major UK punk band from The Damned to The Sex Pistols. I never knew who he was at the time, but in years to come, I found out that this guy on the merch stand was also their lighting director and more so, the Ramones' creative director, responsible for so much of the band’s image and notable record and logo designs.

Fast forward to London 2012 and Arturo is here as part of an Arts Festival, speaking about his time with The Ramones at the Tate Modern. From their Lurex trousered silver booted Iggy & Bowie pre-Punk days to Joey and Dee Dee’s battles with drugs and untimely deaths from cancer and overdose - Arturo had seen it all. The complete transition from geeky social outcasts looking in at New York from un-cool and suburban Forrest Hills, Queens to global punk superstars and icons, name-checked and stylistically mirrored by Motorhead to The Strokes and more recently The Vaccines who walk on stage to the Ramones Rock N Roll Radio.

A young artist in NYC in the early 70’s Arturo had left his native Mexico to look for excitement, glamour and the thrill of rock n roll in New York’s then thriving and epicentre of cool - The Lower East Side. From working burger joints and dropping acid to make his late night walk home through the city more exciting, Arturo was constantly on the look out for inspiration. Early artworks revolved around dayglo inverted Swastika subversion to Warholian packaging and everyday consumer branding design take-offs. A fatefull meeting, that was to change his destiny was just around the corner.

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One day whilst painting in his studio with the door open playing rock n roll music, a young Douglas Colvin on his way to visit his girlfriend upstairs popped his head in. “Hey - you like rock n roll? I’m getting a band together, you should come check us out.” Little did Arturo know but in months to come, Douglas would become Dee Dee Ramone - bass player and songwriter and original Ramones vocalist (Joey was on drums and but became singer when Dee Dee could not play and sing at the same time), and Arturo would be at the helm of the band’s image and logo design.

Inspired by the Mexican eagle, Arturo came back from a trip to Washinton DC with a host of eagle memorabilia. One such item was a belt buckle with the US Presidential Seal. This was to become the basic of the Ramones design, worn on T Shirts from Camden market to Cambodian street markets.

In his time with the Ramones, Arturo was at every single show - which numbered over 2000 - bar 2. And that was only because he was hospitalised. Arturo loved the Ramones. They became his friends, his brothers and his life. No where is this more evident than Arturo’s shrine to the band and living memorial to his life and times with the godfathers of Punk Rock. “Punk’s Birthplace” - C.B.G.B’s - just around the corner from Arturo’s loft, may be gone and now a John Varvatos fashion store, but the real Ramones memories were kept alive right in the place where Arturo lived and worked on East 2nd street off The Bowery just around the corner from the eponymous club that spawned the Ramomes, Blondie, Talking Heads, Television, The Voidoids, Wayne/Jayne County and many others who paved the way for the Punk movement.

Working as a photographer in NYC during the winter of 2012, I dropped Arturo a line to say that I was in town. He remembered me and gave me his phone number. Arturo wasn’t precious, guarded or mean in his memories of the Ramones. He had witnessed the life and times of a band than only really “made it” after they had died and his heart was an open book whenever anyone showed interest.

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A few telephone conversations later, I found myself invited to a dinner party at Arturo’s loft. along with Mexican band, Animo and a film crew making a promo video on the band, directed by Arturo. I knew that I was about the enter the scene of many scenes. A place that Debbie Harry had parties at after CB’s closed for the night. A place where David Johansen, Johhny Thunders and the New York Dolls had hung out. A place where Legs McNeil, founder of “Punk” - the magazine that gave the genre it’s name - had germinated his ideas, the place where Joey and Dee Dee Ramone lived and were kept alive by Arturo’s love and generosity before they had a record deal, and the place where the Ramones logo, their stage backdrops and their sneakers, blue jeans and bikers jacket look  had all been created.

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It was hard to keep cool and remain focussed on conversation when all around me, in every direction I cast my eyes, were original photographs from the ’76 - ’78 heyday, tour posters, stage backdrops, Ramones surfboards, paintings and personal artefacts. After a memorable meal and a cranberry infused salad that I can still taste on my lips, Arturo gave me a personal tour of his loft. After taking in an awe inspired viewing of images and artworks that I had only ever seen in books, magazines and record sleeves, Arturo showed me into his sleeping quarters. The room was almost all white and seemed to shine in a golden tinted celestial haze. I kid you not, it was like a scene from a movie when they open the door to heaven and a golden white light hits you. This was Arturo’s private inner sanctum, his living art and his own private installation in homage to the band he truly and deeply loved. On the were 4 cushions, each with a hand-crafted painting design of the four original Ramones, created by himself. It would be crass and crude to make any sexual overtones or suggestions here, this was a mark of respect and a genuine show of his appreciation for working with four young men who changed the face of rock n roll and in turn, changed the path and destiny of a young artist from Mexico.

The night rounded off with an impromtu photoshoot of the band Arturo was working with - Animo against some his his Warholian backdrops, and some drunken shots of all the dinner guest. The next day, we were set to shoot Animo on location on a Brooklyn rooftop overlooking Manhattan. As I squared off the details with Arturo and prepared to leave, he noticed my hand - “You like rings? Here, take this..” Arturo, opened a draw and pulled out a ring inscribed, “Ramones NYC” along with one of his famous T Shirts designs.

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Arturo was a kind and loving man that touched the lives of many that he came into contact with. From Lou Reed, Andy Warhol, Debbie Harry and the New York punk rock superstars of the late 70’s, Arturo knew them all. But perhaps more fitting, Arturo would stop on the street and answer questions and trivia about the Ramones. They were the band he loved and during my brief time with him in New York City, I witnessed Arturo act out his position as “The 5th Ramone” giving his time to anyone and everyone that cared to stop and ask him.

In recent times, Arturo had collaborated with iconic rock n roll jewellers, The Great Frog and hip street fashion brands Fly 53 and Mishka.

Arturo found out only recently that he had cancer and passed away on Saturday 8 June 2013. “4-5-6-7 All good Cretin’s go the Heaven”. Whatever you believe in, maybe Arturo is now sleeping alongside Joey, Dee Dee and Johnny Ramone and not just their images on his pillow.

Today I will wear my Ramones ring given to me by Arturo with added pride. He was an icon than became my friend. RIP Arturo Vega

Visit my homepage: www.al-de-perez.com

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