Words by Jesse Serwer
Jamaican Dancehall Signs From the Collection of Maxine Walters, a coffee-table collection of vibrant, hand-painted advertisements gathered from public spaces across Jamaica, is the first book from the new publishing venture of Miss Lily’s Variety (the next-door annex of popular NYC Jamaican eatery Miss Lily’s). To bring some context to this distinctly Jamaican, and little documented, form of street marketing, Miss Lily’s had me write a foreword and conduct an interview with Maxine Walters, the Jamaican film producer responsible for collecting the rough-hewn masterpieces of lettering and color featured in the book. The following is an excerpt from our conversation about the signs, their aesthetics, significance, history, and Ms. Walters’ efforts to archive them. For the whole conversation, you’ll have to pick up the book, which is available right here.
Now, if you’re in NYC, we highly recommend bringing yourself down to Miss Lily’s for tonight’s book release party and exhibition opening (on view through Oct. 24!) to see some of these brilliant artifacts up close. If you’ve never been to Jamaica before—where these signs are pretty much everywhere, from bus stops to the gully—you’re in for a visual treat.
How did your interest in dancehall signs develop?
Maxine Walters: Well, to be perfectly honest, these signs have been around forever and, like many Jamaicans, I didn’t notice them. Then a girlfriend of mine—an American Peace Corps volunteer who had stayed with me while she was on her tour of duty in Jamaica—came back on holiday, and brought me one of these signs as a gift. I looked at it, and I’d seen her with all kinds of people in Jamaica, every day she’d go out and come back with the most amazing pieces of Jamaican primitive art. Well, when she brought this thing to me, I really looked at it and a bell went off. I thought “Oh my God, I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s fabulous.” It ignited a passion in me, which has lasted for the last eleven years. I’m a film producer in Jamaica, which involves me traveling all over the island to work, and now I had a new passion, a new reason to travel the countryside and I did it with a vengeance. I think she gave me that first sign in 2001 and, since then, I haven’t stopped. It’s the love of my life. I have collected well over 1,500 signs.
Do you ever have any reservations about removing them from their original locations?
Not at all, because I don’t usually take them until after the event. People find me strange and interesting. Sometimes crowds will gather when I go to take the signs down. There are some communities where you will run into a guy who will go, “What are you doing, why are you taking that down?” And I would reply, “I am from the Metropolitan Parks and Market, is this your sign because this is an illegal sign. ” In fact the signs are illegal. So usually they’ll go, “Why?” and I will say, “You could be fined for having put this up so you better help me take it down” quickly they will reply, “Yes ma’am” and then they jump to take it down. The signs are completely illegal, and that is the beauty of them. They are there, and basically what I’m doing is a two-fold mission in that I’m helping the parish council who are responsible for keeping the street clean, and have laws surrounding these signs—I’m helping them to clean up the streets. And, at the same time, I’m collecting what I consider very natural and beautiful and very free art.
Sometimes these signs can be around so long they become a part of the scenery in a certain community. You’ll see ones from many years prior. From how far back have you gathered signs?
I started collecting in 2001 and I have found signs dating back into the ’80’s. I haven’t found any much older than that. They are made from cardboard and they can stay up for a long time in the streets but then eventually the weather makes them fall apart, if they are not protected. It is an interesting form of communication because it’s become a Jamaican form of marketing. I have signs that talk about plays, I have signs that talk about religious events but mainly I have signs that promote dancehall events. For a country that has something like only 50% literacy, the graphicness of the signs has to indicate something so people know what’s happening. If people see a sign with a heart on it, they know it’s [an event with the sound system] Stone Love. And the reaction of the Jamaican community to them is another interesting thing.
First at the governmental level, you have the Parish Council and, as far as they’re concerned, they’re illegal. Every now and then they have a drive: They clean up the streets and take them down and burn them. I often go and beg them to give them to me before the fire. Then you have the upper class Jamaicans who absolutely consider them an eyesore. They rip them down as soon as they see them, as they consider them lower class litter. They think they’re absolutely gross. And then you have the general public who never even see them, like I didn’t until I started collecting. People don’t see these signs. They are so much a part of the landscape. They are on light posts in Jamaica, they cover walls, they’re all over the place and they don’t see them. I rejoice for at that cause it means more for me!
What would you say that the variety of the signs, and the richness of their aesthetic, says about Jamaica?
I would say that, overall, we are a people who communicate. As much as our language, our patois, is a very visual language, this is depicted in the signs. And it says that we throw good parties. We’re great at throwing parties, and we like people to know that.