The famous AIDS activist, and creator of the iconic red ribbon, passed away at 67 years old from AIDS-related causes in a statement given by his brother Barry.

Patrick was born in 1953 New York, growing up in a post-war New York city. His twenties were spent living in the shadow of the AIDS crisis, though at that time the medical community was still uncertain what the “mystery cancer” was that seemed to mostly affect men who slept with men. By the end of the 1980s AIDS was the leading cause of death for men aged 24 to 44.

It was in 1991 that Patrick would, along with numerous other artists and activists, form the ‘Visual AIDS’ collective. Through physical and performance art the collective would aim to open the eyes of the general public to the disease that was ravaging their community.

It was at that point he realised the world needed a symbol – one of solidarity and of activism. The red ribbon was born, and along with it the ‘Ribbon Project’.

To O’Connell, the colour red was as rousing as it was morose. It symbolised, he told the BBC, blood. It is “the colour of passion” and is “vibrant and attention-getting”.

 The Ribbon Project launched shortly before the 1991 Tony Awards, so with only two weeks to go more than a dozen Visual AIDS artists dedicated their time to turning out thousands of red ribbons to be delivered to the awards venue. The night of the awards Jeremy Irons walked on stage wearing a red ribbon. Before long the ribbons were everywhere, including worn by Elizabeth Taylor and adopted by HIV/AIDS organisations worldwide.

“It is hard to be prideful of something that was generated by such frustration and sorrow,” O’Connell reflected of his decades-long work in AIDS activism to the BBC.

“I would give anything; I would give back all this attention if I hadn’t lived through these decades of AIDS.”

“All the people who died so young, these talented people. Now I know only one person alive from my 20s.”

The red ribbon continues to be the universal symbol for the HIV/AIDS movement worldwide, and Patrick O’Connell’s legacy will live on. 

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