By Matt Jolley, Warbird Radio
It wasn’t long after I started Warbird Radio that I met Gary Velasco. His book, Fighting Colors, is the definitive resource book on nose art. He’s traced the origins of the art form back to the Vikings and will argue Kodachrome and Ektachrome shades of gray with anyone willing to listen. The reigning world expert on nose art, he has spent countless hours not only painting it, but equally lengthy time researching countless slides, photos, and documents in dusty hangars, museums, and his own impressive archive. Like any master, Gary has strong opinions on his area of expertise, but unlike a lot of armchair experts, Gary’s able to defend his notions. I like that about him. He’s a guy who stands by his thoughtfully formed opinions, he doesn’t change with the wind. His work and his ideas are consistent, and his attention to detail is unmatched in the discipline.
Gary came on Warbird Radio in late August of 2023 and announced his diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Like most of his fans, I felt the punch in the gut. Gary told me he thinks he has a few more months left to paint, maybe even a final restoration project, but prefaced that statement by saying “It’s going to be slow – very slow”. Experts say there are around 20,000 cases of ALS uncovered in the USA annually, it’s rare, and Gary’s case is even rarer. Unlike most cases, his ALS is affecting his arms and hands first. Gary says usually the disease usually attacks the legs but not his. Gary’s symptoms started with his upper body, so unless he suddenly learns to paint with his feet, his painting days are limited.
I’m not really joking about him painting with his feet though, because if you know Gary, he’s no stranger to reinventing himself or figuring out how to cope with a difficult situation. This guy is a master at re-inventing himself and becoming wildly successful at it. Before he became the world expert on nose art, Gary was slaying guitar licks with some of the biggest names around New York City back in the 1980s. He’s humble about it all, but if you poke around the internet’s dark corners, you can find pics of a leather pants-wearing Gary Velasco, complete with hair that would make the band Poison envious. He eventually traded in his Aqua Net for a set of paintbrushes and pursued a more lucrative way of feeding his family.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Gary’s work as a nose art painter snowballed. Soon, he was painting the top restorations in the USA. Unlike most painters, Gary’s canvases were multi-million-dollar aircraft, restored from handcrafted parts, and painstakingly assembled over thousands of hours. Mistakes were simply not tolerated, and that’s why the owners hired Gary. Nobody can match his attention to detail, his proportions are also bang on, often in spite of the curving aluminum canvas he painted. I’ve also never seen anyone use rivets like Gary Velasco. The heads always seem to jump into place, precisely where they should be.
Over the next few months, Gary is setting out to transform his business. He’ll be selling some of his Warbird artifact stock and eventually finding new homes for some of his larger prized collection pieces. On the business front, he’s already planning on releasing his images on a new line of Fighting Colors Collection products. He has a new “Sack Time” Hawaiian-style shirt coming out, which will complement his “Flying Tigers” design already in production. Personally, I think he needs to use his extensive collection of small artifacts for a line of Gary Velasco hats. If you know Gary, he’s never without his trademark Cowboy hat. Just imagine that hat with a warbird relic on the front. King Richard Petty might even wear one.
ALS sucks, and I hate that it found its way to Gary, but I have no doubt it won’t stop him from living his life to the very best of his ability. God speed Gary, we’re all here for you. ~Matt Jolley