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Grateful Dead Artist Showcases Backstage Pass Masterpieces

By Nicholas Rizzi | November 21, 2012 7:59am

GRYMES HILL — For those lucky enough to get a backstage pass to a Grateful Dead concerts, their ticket past security was no simple piece of laminated paper.

The band's passes, which became prized by fans, were brightly colored pieces of art that were sometimes a piece of a larger puzzle.

Many of those passes were designed by Staten Island artist Antonio Reonegro, 47, who will display his work at a new art exhibition at the Wagner College Gallery, in Grymes Hill, where Reonegro is an adjunct art professor.

The "Rose from the Dead" exhibition will display the nearly 170 backstage passes and two T-shirts Reonegro drew for the band in the almost six years he worked for them.

While none of the original passes will be on display, Reonegro reprinted them on to larger pieces of Plexiglas to show the art that only a few lucky fans previously got to see.

“When they were created, only friends and family of the band got to see the backstage passes,” said Reonegro.

“No one really got a chance to see a lot of that art, but when the Internet started to get bigger, people started to do searches on my name. I’ve been posting some of the images, so I decided to take them out of my flash files and put them on display.”

The passes, which feature brightly colored pictures of skeletons, animals and the iconic dancing bear logo of the Grateful Dead, have become collector items for fans of the bands, known as "Deadheads." On some rock memorabilia websites, original backstage passes sell for an average of $50 each.

The band would generally give Reonegro free range on what he would draw, and he said he would get ideas for the passes by visiting local museums and sketching during the Grateful Dead’s concerts in New York.

“I did a lot of my sketching at shows,” he said. “It was cool. Meeting the fans, it wasn't just a music, it was the whole Grateful Dead experience that made it so unique.”

He said that since only around 500 to 700 people ever got to go backstage, he got very little feedback on his work.

With the art on the Internet and at the show, he’s happy people finally get to see the pieces.

“You do the artwork and you wouldn’t hear if anybody ever appreciated it,” he said.

"I would hardly ever meet these people. Now they’ll write to me. It’s great that it’s finally out there and that people are gravitating to it.”

Reonegro would make some of the passes fit together to create a larger picture like a jigsaw puzzle. One puzzle combined 20 passes to show a circus train.

“At the time, I just thought it was a novel way to tell a story,” he said. “People really liked the idea.”

Eventually, the band’s manager asked Reonegro to stop making the puzzles because friends were constantly asking for the missing pieces.

And while Reonegro said he became a big fan of the Grateful Dead and would see almost all of their New York shows, he never knew much about the band before he started to work for them.

Reonegro got free tickets from his father-in-law, who used to fix equipment for the band. Backstage, the band asked him to draw up some samples to show them when they came back into town.

However, Reonegro didn't know the band toured so much, and didn't have any art for them the next time they were in New York. He told them the designs were back in his studio, so he went back to Staten Island and spent all night drawing.

“I stayed up all night and I did a bunch of sketches,” he said. “I met them at the Ritz Carlton, and a few weeks later they had me design a T-shirt.”

Reonegro designed eight T-shirts for the band before he started the backstage passes, which he created for the remainder of the band's career.

Currently, Reonegro owns Havoc Designs in Graniteville, where he produces art for Penguin books classic series, children’s books, film festival posters and other businesses.

Aside from the Dead, Reonegro also did art for the Allman Brothers Band, Joan Jett, Blues Traveler, and Metal Church.

"Rose from the Dead" will be at the Wagner College Gallery, 631 Howard Ave., until January 5. The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. with extended hours on Thursday until 7 p.m.