Visual Culture: The Street Murals of Jamaican Painter Michael Robinson

Words by Jesse Serwer
Photos by Matthew Henry

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If you’ve driven through Kingston, Jamaica in recent years, you’ve almost certainly seen the work of artist Michael Robinson.

The streets of Jamaica’s capital are filled with murals honoring the country’s heroes and icons — singers, politicians, religious leaders, neighborhood dons. Generally, the painters of these tributes, which are usually commissioned by local businesses or private figures to attract attention to their property or beautify a public space, have remained somewhat anonymous and obscure to the city’s general population. Those attuned to the art around them, however, will notice distinct styles that emerge among the panoply of murals — hallmarks of a handful of accomplished street artists who make their living through these ubiquitous painted tributes.

Michael Robinson is possibly the most prolific of these muralists for hire. His portraits of Bob Marley, Haile Selassie and others adorn public spaces throughout Kingston. His most notable canvas is the Wall of Fame which surrounds Jamaica’s National Stadium, a seemingly miles-long series of paintings depicting numerous athletes, singers and politicians. Robinson’s work can also be found at Trench Town Culture Yard, the Boys Town Wall of Fame and on the outside walls of numerous music studios. A mural of Horace Andy that adorns the falsetto singer’s Pop Corn studio on Bond Street is a noted landmark of this busy and famed drag in Downtown Kingston. Jimmy Cliff commissioned Robinson to paint a series of portraits at his Sun Power Productions studio on Haining Road.

A native of Denham Town, in West Kingston, Robinson has been painting on walls since he was a youth. Unlike most street artists, Robinson has some formal art training —he studied, for a time, at the Edna Manley College, then known as the Jamaica School of Art. In 2014, he was selected among ten artists featured in the National Gallery of Jamaica’s “Anything with Nothing” street art exhibition.

“I want to reach heights in the arts,” Robinson told the National Gallery. “It’s not really about money, it’s just the greatness. I [want] people to recognize my work and say, ‘Boy, ah Michael Robinson that’… Sometimes people pass by my painting and say, ‘Ah who dat?’ I don’t like to hear that, and as soon as I hear it, I leave my food and go back to the painting.”

Today is Heroes Day, a holiday where Jamaica celebrates its seven national heroes and conveys an order of distinction upon modern-day figures of merit —this year’s list of awardees includes the late Gregory Isaacs and Bunny Rugs, and a very much alive, Shabba Ranks. As someone whose life’s work has been honoring the heroes of the Jamaican public — whether locally-born or foreign figures like Selassie and Nelson Mandela — Michael Robinson deserves a spotlight today, too.

These photos from LargeUp photographer Matthew Henry depict a day in the life of Robinson, as he works on murals in Kingston with a little help from his family.

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