RAMONES: Arturo Vega and the Making of the Logo Heard Round the World
By Sandra Hale Schulman
“Even fashion’s savviest marketing minds would be hard-pressed to rival the split-second recognition of the band’s logo, dreamed up by [Arturo] Vega, and today almost as universal as the Nike swoosh.” Vogue
In 1971 budding artist Arturo Vega (October 13, 1947 — June 8, 2013) was arrested in Mexico City with 149 others. The big bold black capital letter headline read “Federal Judicial Police Arrest 149 Drug Addicted Hippies of Both Sexes” in the Mexican daily El Nacional on February 13, 1971.
Vega carried this clip around with him until his death in 2013, a stark reminder of the oppression he narrowly escaped from to New York City. The arrested “hippies” were actually 148 of the most important actors, actresses, artists, writers, poets, and filmmakers of the day, including Alejandro Jodorowsky, the famous Chilean filmmaker. They were detained at a party in an affluent suburb of Mexico City.
But that clip became more than a reminder of his “hippie” past. He initially moved to New York to pursue a career in the performing arts, auditioning for the touring version of the Broadway musical ‘Hair”, but as an artist he had been actively producing collages starting in 1970.
He used that headline clip and explored his fascination with the power of the printed word in hundreds of paintings and prints throughout his prolific career, but is best known for designing the round logo for The Ramones, who were the subject of a retrospective called Hey! Ho! Let’s Go: Ramones and the Birth of Punk at the Queens Museum in 2016.
Soon after arriving in New York City he took a large loft space at 6 East 2nd Street to live in and use as a studio. He started painting works based on grocery store signs but soon became the “art director” for a band called The Ramones in 1974 whom he met around the corner at the club CBGBs.
Knocked out by the power of the short, sharp 3-minute songs and all American look of ripped jeans, sneakers and leather jackets, he let them start living and rehearsing at his loft. To make them stand out he designed a banner for the stage backdrop that just said RAMONES in big black all caps on a white background, which he hung in the loft while they practiced. The font and letter type was directly from the headline of El Nacional.
“My house became “The Ramones Loft.” It was warehouse and headquarters, often used for interviews and photo shoots,” Arturo said in the website he created for the band called RAMONESWORLD.COM, which is no longer active. In an early photo of the band he explains: “In the background you can see the first backdrop I hand-painted on the occasion of a show with the Heartbreakers. We thought they were real competition so I felt I had to do something extra for that show.”
From there he printed the new simple word logo on t-shirts to sell on the road to help pay his way. The band initially snickered, wondering if anyone would bother to buy a shirt with the name of an unknown band on it. In a video interview Vega claims he printed about 3 dozen shirts and they all sold.
But the band took off and were signed to a deal within a year. Bigger shows were booked, and Vega, who was constantly on the lookout for words and symbols for inspiration, began pulling from some unlikely sources.
He put the band name in parentheses next but then found a cool looking eagle on a belt buckle and took pictures of himself wearing it in a photo booth in Times Square. He used the eagle under the logo as the next version of the shirt in 1976.
“I saw them as the ultimate all-American band,” Arturo told author Jim Bessman in the book ‘Ramones: An American Band.’ “To me, they reflected the American character in general, an almost childish innocent aggression. I thought, ‘The Great Seal of the President of the United States’ would be perfect for the Ramones, with the eagle holding arrows to symbolize strength and the aggression that would be used against whomever dares 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 American as apple pie. And since Johnny was such a baseball fanatic, we had the eagle hold a baseball bat instead of the arrows.”
But it needed more. Pre Trash & Vaudeville band musicians were scouring the stores for cool shit. For guys, Robbins on 14th St was the source.
Howie Pyro of The Blessed and D Generation says “It was an ultimate 14th St. super low budget cheap store for low for a Latinos mostly but they had all kinds of demented mod clothing there from probably left over from the 60s. As far back as probably the 1950s 14th St. in Manhattan was the dividing line between downtown and the rest of the world, it was where the sleaziest typed hung out, many blocks of endless cheapo stores-somewhat of a bizarre bazaar, almost like a mini 42nd St. Everything was super cheap- you could buy a Japanese robot and two joints probably from the same person… everything was on display out in the street, rarely did you go into a store. There was an endless parade of toy stores, clothing shops, cheap street food, nasty movie theaters, like a giant discount frenzy and in the middle was a massive clothing store called Robbins. I don’t think they had a master plan but it was almost like going to a bizarro world Fiorucci’s, haha. They always were bringing in these cheap factory finds of 60s clothing… You’d walk in there and there’d be an entire rack of black vinyl jackets that were more punk than anything in Trash and Vaudeville! Everyone was shopping there before punk I’m sure as well (as seen in Arturo’s infamous shirt). I’d bet the New York Dolls probably shopped there. When Manic Panic the first punk store in America opened, and I was their first employee, we went over there quite a bit and grabbed all kinds of stuff to sell in the store…”
Paul Zone of The Fast: “We shopped there a lot, they had all kinds of stuff like packs of socks, jeans, vinyl jackets, sweat shirts, even shaving cream. I think there was one in Brooklyn too, they all closed in the 1980s. It was for low income Latinos, the store had big plastic block letters on the sign, like 6 feet high in red.”
Arturo found a weird polyester shirt made in Poland, white with jagged red and blue arrow stripes running up and down. Something about the stark, off kilter USA look of it appealed to him. He took the arrow pattern and inserted it into the badge in front of the eagle.
Going back to the newspaper clip, there is a direct connection between the eagle in the circle in the El Nacional logo. In the body of the eagle he added a pattern of red arrows taken from the Polish made nylon shirt from Robbins. The shirt was made in a few different patterns, Vega bought all of them. He wore some, took pictures of him wearing them with an eagle belt buckle and even kept some in their original packaging — one of which now resides in a glass case in the permanent Ramones Museum in Berlin, Germany.
The names of the band members replaced the words “Seal of the President of the United States” in a circle around the eagle seal. In early versions of the logo the words LOOK OUT BELOW replaced E PLURIBUS UNUM on the ribbon streaming from the eagles mouth, in later versions the words were changed to HEY HO LET’S GO in a nod to the band’s popular song chorus.
“As much as anything it was Arturo’s very decision to make a logo for a rock group that is important,” says Queens Museum curator Marc Miller in an interview in April 2016. “The only real precedent was the ‘tongue and lips’ logo that John Pasche created for the Rolling Stones in 1971. Pasche was working with a world famous group and his logo was designed primarily to reinforce the Stones bad boy image. Over the years it has been used only intermittently because frequently the connotations it evoked did not conform to the Stones evolving identity. Arturo’s challenge was different since he was working with an unknown group. His logo based on the presidential seal sought to confer stature and authority and has become inseparable from the Ramones. This can be attributed to the strength of the design and to the fact that stature and authority are always desirable attributes. It’s success is also rooted in the inspired way Arturo has been able to exploit the design’s flexibility adjusting it to reflect Ramones personnel changes as well as the group’s new projects.”
Over the years the design would morph as band members came and went and events were created.
“This is the way the original logo looked on the back cover of the second album, Leave Home. Yes, it’s before computers, and there was a lot of real cut-and-paste,” Vega said.
“After I created the eagle logo, the next logical step was to take it to the stage,” Vega writes on his defunct website. “Here I am working on the second eagle stage backdrop, the ‘white one’. It was painted right on the floor.”
The shirt reinforced the branding of the band and became a real phenomenon, selling at an enormous rate. At first Vega printed them in his loft, buying the black shirts in bulk on Canal Street and setting up a printing shop in the loft. He hired local neighborhood kids to help. I knew Arturo since about 1977 and remember going to the loft and seeing hundreds of freshly printed shirts hanging from the over head pipes, the overwhelming smell of silkscreen ink in the air. Music was always playing, beers were consumed and the print-a-thon went on for days.
Eventually the demand was too great, and Vega began licensing the production of the shirts to other companies. Soon that grew even larger as he made licensing deals around the world for everything from sneakers to socks, shorts, jackets, wallets, skate boards, baby clothes, hats and stickers — all bearing the logo. They were — and are still — sold in stores globally and online.
At a show I attended in Miami Beach in the late 80s at the Cameo Theater, I watched Vega running the light board he designed, then he would run to the merchandise table to sell shirts. He left the venue with a large duffel bag, later I saw it was stuffed with money, thousands of dollars in small grubby bills, proceeds from the show. At venues in South America they played to crowds of 60,000 and more, Vega said that every kid that went bought a $25 shirt. You do the math.
“They sold more T-shirts than records,” said Danny Fields, the band’s early manager in an interview with the New York Times “and probably they sold more T-shirts than tickets.”
Vega had the logo tattooed huge on his back a few years before he died.
Today you can see the shirt on someone almost everywhere you go. There have been countless imitations by other bands. The show at the Queens Museum has many variations of the shirt as designed by Vega, 3 of them on display came from my collection of about 50 shirts, a powerful testament to the enduring appeal of his brilliant, bold design.
In a bizarre coincidence, at the opening of the Queens exhibit on April 10th, 2016 — a mob scene attended by thousands — a fan named Christina Gemora wore the arrow shirt, a thrift shop find that was the same shirt that inspired the logo 40 years ago. She had no clue about its importance. I couldn’t resist a photo op of her in front of the banner.