How the Red 'AIDS Ribbon' Was Born in 1991: Artist Marc Happel Reveals the Amazing True Story

When Marc Happel saw yellow ribbons around trees 30 years ago, to honor soldiers fighting in the Gulf War, he thought of his friends and loved ones whose lives had been lost to AIDS

It was 1991 in New York City's East Village and people were vanishing. Mostly young men, often creative types — one day they were in their studio sculpting or lugging paintings down the street and the next, gone.

"Nobody wanted to talk about what was happening," remembers Marc Happel, who then worked as a freelance costume designer. "No one wanted to talk about how these people were dying of HIV or AIDS. They just" — his voice cracks in his design studio and tears begin to roll down his face. "They just disappeared."

The world would later learn of the devastating toll that AIDS wrought on the LGBTQ community. By May of 1991, 174,000 people were living with the disease and it was the second-leading cause of death for men 25 to 44. (Today, about 1.2 million Americans are living with HIV.)

But in the early '90s, information was scarce, compassion even harder to find, and — on a national level — there was no discourse. It's hard to imagine today, in this age of ubiquitous activism, but as Happel, today 65, recalls, "There was no conversation. No one cared."

marc happel
Marc Happel. Allison Michael Orenstein

Happel was living with his then-partner Harvey Weiss (they married in 2019). They had watched friends die since 1980, when AIDS first appeared in the U.S. — first mysteriously, then secretly. Symptoms, such as skin lesions, became publicly identifiable which spawned fear and paranoia.

"There were signs in the windows of stores, 'If you have these marks on you, you are not allowed in.'" He and Weiss became frustrated. While they were members of the AIDS activist group ACT UP, founded by the late Larry Kramer, and took part in the vital demonstrations, "we began to feel something had to be done by artists. Because art is something that, many times, people will respond to more than a fist in the air."

During a weekend drive with Weiss and artist Frank Moore in upstate New York, Happel was struck by a series of large yellow ribbons wrapped around trees, a sign of support for troops abroad and fighting in the Gulf War. "Some of them were big and garish," Happel says, chuckling. Then, he turns serious. "Here we were, in a car, traveling with Frank, who was living with HIV and was desperately trying to find any way he could to keep going and survive. We felt like people didn't understand there was a war going on at home."

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Happel was struck with an idea. A small piece of ribbon to honor human life. That night, he and Weiss attended his first meeting of the Visual AIDS Artist's Caucus, a group founded by Allen Frame to get the message of AIDS awareness to the public. They pitched the ribbon.

While it was his initial idea, Happel emphasizes the collective ideation and execution. "It was very much from the very beginning that was one of the things that we really felt so strongly about, is that we all came together to create this, not one single person."

aids ribbon
Visual AIDS

A color was chosen — red, for blood — and a template was created. The instructions: easy. Cut a ribbon to six inches. Fold it in half into an inverted V, and pin it to your lapel. The intention: powerful. "If people knew about what it was, it reminded them. If people didn't, it made them say, 'What is that?' So then it started a conversation." And because no one owned the rights — a decision was made early not to copyright the design — everyone was able to own the cause.

One last minute idea in the summer of 1991: the Tony Awards ceremony was approaching. Ribbons were placed backstage. After Jeremy Irons walked out at the Tony Awards in 1991, the cause went international. And, finally, people started talking.

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