RIP Arturo Vega: The Man Behind The Ramones T Shirt

The man behind The Ramones' iconic logo has died, aged 65. This is the story of how his design, taken from the streets of New York to worldwide recognition, was born.
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The man behind The Ramones' iconic logo has died, aged 65. This is the story of how his design, taken from the streets of New York to worldwide recognition, was born.

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Few bands will go down in history as having a look as identifiable, influential and iconic as The Ramones.

Way before the concept of the ‘stylist’ began to erode rock n roll authenticity, four misfits from Forrest Hills, Queens, New York settled on a look - leather biker’s jackets, worn-through skinny jeans and white plimsolls - a look that became a blueprint for rock fashion from Brooklyn to Brick Lane.

But perhaps even more than the band’s personal style that has been assimilated by many from Sid Vicious to The Strokes - it is the Ramones Logo T Shirt that will go down as the most iconic band T shirt design in history.

As readily available now as cheap coke, the logo T-Shirt can be found in a multitude of international high-street fashion chains as well as a plethora of websites offering ‘authentic’ rock n roll gear. But this wasn’t always the case...

In 1973, street-hustler come Bergdorf Goodman’s shampoo boy, Douglas Colvin was visiting his friend Pam just off New York’s infamous Bowery. Unbeknown that his next steps would lead to a relationship that would form the foundations of the Ramones, he popped his head through artist Arturo Vega’s loft door and proclaimed, “I like your music. I’m Dee Dee Ramone.”

From there on in a bond was formed and as Dee Dee slowly got his band together, Joey, Johnny and Tommy bonded with Arturo and made his loft - just a few doors down from Ramones spiritual home CBGB’s - their HQ.

Arturo Vega left Tijuana, Mexico in 1965 for San Francisco in pursuit of the Hippy Dream. To make ends meet he soon began making leather belts and customising jeans for the peace loving hippies. By ‘69 The Dream was over and New York was calling.

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Hanging out with the hustlers on 42nd Street and dropping acid on the way home from work - timed to get high as he was walking over the Brooklyn Bridge - Aturo’s path eventually led to Johnny Thunders and the New York Dolls.

Combined with a fascination for coin collecting, fashion and making his own jewellery - the seeds of the Ramones logo were propagating. Directly inspired by a batch of cheap nylon dead-stock Polish T shirts, a US Military Belt and a coin to commemorate the Apollo moon landings, The Ramones logo was soon to be born.

“I was already designing T Shirts for the band. I made Joey one using the Carbona logo as a reaction to the Glue Sniffing that was popular in Glasgow at the time (the band later recorded a song ‘Carbona Not Glue’). I made a Prince Charles one for Dee Dee for their 1st UK Tour. We heard the Sex Pistols were anti Monarchy so I decided to be pro-monarchy”.

A New Years eve co-headline at CBGB’s with Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers inspired Arturo to design a Ramones banner to hoist behind the band on stage. “They were seen by the Ramones only real competition in NYC at the time and we wanted to upstage them”. He’d also made some shirts just bearing the name Ramones using iron-on red felt from a stall at Coney Island but it wasn’t until the eve of the Ramones departure to London for their seminal July 4th 1976 gig at The Roundhouse - attended by The Clash, The Damned and The Sex Pistols - that the design we know today came into being.

“The record company weren’t paying for my air fare so I needed a way to cover my expenses.” An earlier trip with the band to Washington D.C had crystalised the design in his mind. “I suggested that I make up some Ramones T shirts to sell. The band all laughed out - ‘who’s gonna buy a Ramones T shirt?’”

“Rock T shirts were not as we know then as today. It was very rare to see a band selling shirts at a gig - especially a band as early into their career as The Ramones.”

Nevertheless, the American Eagle, bearing a shield with a zig-zag design taken from the Polish T shirts he found downtown and the band’s cry to arms, “Hey Ho Let’s Go” together with a baseball bat (in reference to the song Beat on the Brat” and their names - Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy - in a circular legend became the logo we all know today. (Later version saw Tommy replaced by Marky who was then replaced by Richie, and Dee Dee replaced by C.Jay. In true Spinal Tap revolving drummer style, Clem Burke of Blondie even joined the band for a few shows under the name Elvis Ramone but he didn’t stick around long enough to get a T shirt made).

“The band were all excited to go to England as they loved The Beatles, The Who and The Kinks. Some of the band’s most important times were to be spent there.”

“I travelled separately and met Nancy Spungeon - who I already knew from New York - as soon as I landed. Arty - we must go straight to the King’s Road she said. On the way we were spotted and chased by a gang of Mods. Nancy pushed me into a doorway and took off her heels. Holding her hands aloft with a stiletto in each hand, she attacked the first one to come for us. A second one tried to attack and she hit him clear in the head too and they all backed off. People tell me that is the only ‘positive’ story they’ve heard about Nancy!