• Steven Heller

Dancin’ Jamaica

Not all “vernacular” signs are created equal. Indeed, most vernacular signs by virtue of the name should be different. They are often handmade by untutored hands. Some of the best of the ad hoc ads I’ve ever seen are collected in Serious Things a Go Happen: Three Decades of Jamaican Dancehall Signs (Hat & Beard, Los Angeles) by Maxine Walters (edited by J.C. Gabel and Vivien Goldman, with an introduction by Marlon James). This exceptional volume “brings together more than 100 original posters and signs from the early 1980s through today, drawn from the poster collection of Jamaican film and television producer and director Maxine Walters. Jamaican dancehall emerged out of reggae in the late 1970s and brought with it a new visual style characterized by bright colors and bold, hand-drawn lettering.”

If you think you’ve seen enough of these un-designed designs, you’d be wrong. For one thing, this book is a handsome and intelligent history of indigenous sign painting, unique to the Jamaican music culture. Second, aside from some fascinating essays on reggae life and dancehall innovations, the images (as you’ll see below) are consistent yet rival similar graphic genres in parts of Africa and the Caribbean islands.

What’s more, this design isn’t naif folk art—it has become a graphic language that signals a worldwide phenomenon that is as savvy in its way as other popular music/design collaborations.

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