In Memory of the Creator of the Red Ribbon Against HIV
Patrick O’Connell, the creator of the HIV/AIDS awareness campaign represented by the red ribbon, died in March this year of AIDS-related causes, at the age of 67.
Based in New York City, in 1989 he founded Visual AIDS, an activist group to support visual artists affected by HIV, according to a profile published in The New York Times.
While in the eighties New York became the epicenter of the AIDS crisis, O’Connell was immersed in a dynamic in which every week he attended the funeral of another friend, and where he constantly found messages on his answering machine in which more and more friends told him that they had discovered they were infected with HIV.
“We lived in a war zone,” the author said in a 2011 interview with the Newsday newspaper. “But it was like a war that at the same time was like a deep secret that only we knew.”
Against this background, he organized meetings in what would later become the operations center of Visual AIDS. There, he began generating awareness campaigns that used concept art.
In 1991, his organization launched the Ribbon Project, which produced the distinctively shaped red ribbon (crossed over itself) that would become the international symbol of the AIDS response.
The red color represented blood and the shape symbolized the silence surrounding the epidemic. O’Connell organized dozens of people who produced thousands of ties, which were distributed throughout the city.
One goal that year was for the red ribbon to appear at the Tony Awards, the accolades that recognize the best of Broadway theater. O’Connell contacted everyone he knew in the industry: costume designers, hair stylists, actors. A group of volunteers put red ribbons on the seats of the guests that night. At the beginning of the ceremony, Jeremy Irons, one of the hosts, appeared in the picture wearing the red bow on his lapel. Throughout the night, other actors and actresses also used it.
Thus, the red ribbon made its appearance as the symbol of something that could no longer be ignored, and its strength has endured for decades.