Prominent HIV/AIDS activist and red ribbon designer, Patrick O’Connell, has died at 67, with his brother confirming to The New York Times that his death was a result of AIDS-related causes. In 1991, O’Connell formed Visual AIDS, a collection of artists dedicated to producing work to raise awareness of the illness, telling the BBC in 2003: “We had no choice…The East Village art scene felt like it was disappearing overnight because of AIDS. All our colleagues around the country were dying.”
He later designed the red ribbon symbol, saying: “We thought of using ribbon because we’d had just gone through the Gulf War and observed that Americans in small towns were willing to visibly express their support for soldiers by putting up yellow ribbon.” He said the colour red was chosen to represent ‘blood and passion’, while the minimalistic design of the ribbon was a nod to the lack of discourse surrounding HIV and AIDS.
The red ribbon became a universally recognised symbol, with a handful of celebrities wearing a red ribbon at the 1991 Tony Awards. O’Connell had been living with HIV for 40 years and spent the last decade of his life in a New York apartment. Peter Hay Halpert, a close friend, said: “So many people involved in that fight alongside him died, and he was left to deal with living with the illness alone. He became one of the last survivors from that time still left.”