Louie Ponstingel of Hawthorne designed a heart-shaped 9/11 logo that he wants to make a national symbol. This month, he got an assist from Paul McCartney.
Louis Ponstingel designed the heart-shaped logo after the attacks. This month, the former Beatle displayed it onstage at the Prudential Center.
Louis Ponstingel is sitting in his graphic design shop in Garfield. There is work to be done. He needs to finish a sign for a tavern, then paint another for a restaurant. And then there are the cars that sometimes show up for custom pinstriping.
On this day, though, Ponstingel’s thoughts turn back in time — to the gleaming Twin Towers of the World Trade Center that collapsed 16 years ago this month in America’s deadliest terror attack.
He watched the whole thing on television that morning from another design studio in Paterson. He saw flames lick the sides of the buildings. He saw office workers jump to their deaths from the upper floors. And then, amid the brown-gray cloud that mushroomed over lower Manhattan, he watched the buildings fall.
Ponstingel, a former Paterson police sketch artist and fire dispatcher, remembers turning the TV off. He couldn’t take the pain. He drove to his mother’s home on Paterson’s west side and started to draw — partly for therapy, he says, and partly to just organize all the emotions coursing through him.
What emerged was a heart-shaped, red-white-and-blue logo that offered a simple message: “9-11-01. Never Forgotten.”
What happened next is a story of how one man’s emotional connection to the attacks resonated with thousands of other people, and his mission to turn the logo into a national 9/11 symbol — a mission that received an unexpected assist this month from a former Beatle.
In the months after the 9/11 attacks, Ponstingel, now 54 and living in Hawthorne, printed more than 50,000 items — decals, mostly — bearing the symbol. He sold some to pay for the printing costs, but says he donated any leftover funds to the Red Cross or to 9/11 charities.
It went on like this for 16 years.
Then came this year’s 9/11 anniversary.
Ponstingel’s phone beeped. Paul McCartney’s New York City office was on the line.
Weeks earlier, after relaxing with his 14-year-old son, Tristen, to watch a DVD of McCartney’s performance of “Freedom” and “Let It Be” at a star-packed benefit in New York City six weeks after the 9/11 attacks, Ponstingel sent a copy of his logo to McCartney. It turned out that McCartney, whose father was a volunteer firefighter in Liverpool, England, was familiar with Ponstingel’s heart-shaped logo, and he liked it, too.
On the phone, McCartney’s tour manager had a question: Would Ponstingel like tickets to a concert at Newark’s Prudential Center on Sept. 11, the first of a series of New York-area gigs that McCartney, 75, would be giving this month, ending Wednesday at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y.? And would Ponstingel like to bring several Paterson firefighters who had volunteered after the attacks to clean up the rubble and search for human remains at Ground Zero?
“Of course I said yes,” Ponstingel said.
The story doesn’t end there, however.
Ponstingel and Tristen were invited backstage along with four Paterson firefighters who had cleared rubble and searched for remains at Ground Zero in the months after the 9/11 attacks.
McCartney approached them and thanked everyone, Ponstingel said. Then, before they headed to their seats near the stage, the group posed with McCartney for a photo. As he walked away, Ponstingel said, McCartney gave him a thumbs up and praised the logo.
“We couldn’t believe it,” Ponstingel said. “And McCartney couldn’t have been nicer.”
But Ponstingel said he never told McCartney about his dream of making his logo a national symbol. “I wasn’t there to market anything,” he said.
What happened later that night offers a window into how celebrities can focus attention in extraordinary ways, especially in this age of social media.
McCartney finished the last song of his main set — “Hey Jude” — and walked off the Prudential Center stage with his band. The audience cheered for more.
Moments later, McCartney returned for an encore, waving a large American flag. His keyboardist waved Britain’s Union Jack.
Then another bandmate — his drummer, Abe Laboriel Jr. — stepped forward hoisting a flag bearing Ponstingel’s heart-shaped 9/11 logo.
When the cheering subsided, McCartney picked up an acoustic guitar and began strumming his classic hit “Yesterday.”
Hours later, photos of McCartney onstage with the flag and of his backstage meeting with Ponstingel were posted on McCartney’s Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts which have a combined audience of nearly 12 million. More than 90,000 of those followers across all three accounts responded by “liking” the photos.
“Amazing,” Ponstingel said, reflecting on the moment. “It’s got its own energy.”
A design ‘from the heart’
But was this the kind of exposure that could make Ponstingel’s logo a national 9/11 symbol? This is where Ponstingel’s story gets complicated.
We all cherish our favorite symbols and logos. It might be the interlocking “NY” on Mets or Yankee baseball caps. It might be the big red tongue that has come to define the audacity of the Rolling Stones. It could be the once-bitten apple of Apple or the simple lower-case “f” of Facebook.
Ponstingel’s 9/11 logo speaks to us on another level.
“It from the heart,” he says.
Sixteen years ago, on that tragic September morning, Ponstingel felt he had to “just draw something.”
“I wanted to get away from the television,” he recalled.
First, he sketched the heart. Then, he said, the whole design “just came to me.”
He drew a “9.” Then, in place of the numeral “11,” Ponstingel drew the Trade Center’s Twin Towers.
Below that he wrote, “Never Forgotten.”
Then he added a solitary star.
“I guess that’s where I felt my pain,” Ponstingel says now.
The pain deepened as Ponstingel was called to Ground Zero to paint lettering on trucks for a construction firm that had been hired to clear rubble. He also lettered signs at the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island, where the debris was eventually taken.
Ponstingel’s emotional scars have now turned into a dream. He envisions his heart-shaped design as a flag, hanging just below Old Glory in the way the many communities now feature the iconic black-and-white flag that commemorates prisoners of war.
This is where Ponstingel’s journey has stalled.
McCartney’s embrace of Ponstingel’s logo at the Newark concert helped to publicize the logo. McCartney’s Manhattan office, MLP Publishing, however, did not respond to phone and email requests for comment on why the ex-Beatle was so drawn to Ponstingel’s design that he featured it at his concert.
Ponstingel’s heart-shaped design also became the centerpiece of the official 9/11 memorial in Paterson. And it’s hardly a small thing that, in addition to decals, Ponstingel now circulates T-shirts, flags, lapel pins and other items that feature his logo, using some of the proceeds to cover his production costs and donating the rest to charity.
But 9/11 and its memories are a complicated emotional landscape, with many logos and other symbols that reflect the the nearly 2,800 victims and how they perished.
The National September 11 Memorial and Museum has its logo — a simple black-and-blue “9/11.” The Port Authority Police Department has its logo — the twin towers and an American flag. The New York City Police Department has a wide array of logos on uniform patches that feature American flags, the towers and the message “Never Forget.” And, finally, there are even more patches for the various units of New York’s Fire Department — a mix of twin towers, flags and flames.
Where does Ponstingel’s fit?
“Nobody owns 9/11,” said John Feal, a former construction worker who was injured at while helping to clear Ground Zero and started a foundation to focus attention on the health problems of first-responders who breathed toxic dust. “I don’t see how his logo could be the official logo unless he invents a cure for cancer.”
But Feal and others acknowledge that Ponstingel’s logo offers an unusual emotional link to the 9/11 tragedy.
Lisa Gates-McCormick, vice president of the Gates Flag Company in Clifton, said she was especially drawn to the “healing and softness” of Ponstingel’s design.
Gates-McCormick still remembers how customers lined up outside her store to purchase flags in the weeks after 9/11. Over the years, she has sold all manner of flags with different 9/11 logos. But Ponstingel’s logo is special, she says.
“Louie’s is nice because it takes you away from the look of the towers and it’s more the heart,” Gates-McCormick said. “That’s just the kind of a unifying symbol that everybody feels in their hearts.”
Back in his shop in Garfield — a narrow garage on a block with an Italian café and a barbershop — Ponstingel says he knows his logo has touched many, and he’s happy with that.
“My vision is to have this across the country,” he said, adding that he would donate all proceeds to charity.
But he has no business plan. No chart. No marketing campaign.
“I’m an artist,” he says. “What I’ve learned is the less expectations I have the more things turn out better.”
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