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Wilfred Limonious, In Fine Style, One Love Books
Back cover of the LP Parish Vol 2 by Various Artistes (Parish, 1989)

The quiet cartoonist who built a visual world for dancehall

Wilfred Limonious’s contribution to dancehall’s identity is as imperative as the music that it is known for

For a genre and subculture so loud, unapologetic and bold, you’d be surprised to find that a “quiet and observant” newspaper cartoonist could be behind dancehall’s most seminal artworks. 

Recognisable for his bright colours and outrageous caricatures spouting patois-filled captions, Wilfred Limonious (often dubbed the ‘Father of Dancehall Art’) and his contribution to the dancehall community is as imperative as the music that it is known for – with art going hand-in-hand with sound.

While he is by no means the first to pair cartoons with music, as dancehall emerged in the early 80s taking inspiration from reggae, Limonious – then publishing comics for local newspapers – became the architect of a unique world and visual language for the genre, all influenced by his surroundings in his native Jamaica. His work injected life into legendary album covers such as Jah Thomas’s Shoulder Move, Ghost Buster by Early B and Papa San’s Animal Party, as well as most recently inspiring Top 40 names such as Major Lazer.

With dancehall’s influence permeating mainstream media – from Rihanna to Sean Paul and Popcaan – Limonious’s legacy is everywhere, yet his name is little known outside of Jamaica and dancehall circles. However, 17 years after his death, his world has been comprehensively immortalised in a retrospective book titled In Fine Style: The Dancehall Art of Wilfred Limonious by authors Christopher Bateman and Al ‘Fingers’ Newman – who we speak to below.

When did you first come across Limonious’s work?

Christopher Bateman: I first became aware of Limonious’s album covers in a great Toronto record store called S&W Soul King. I was on tour with my band and we were looking for records. I walked in and saw the Original Stalag 17, 18 and 19 LP and bought it right away, just on the strength of that cover.

Al Newman: I came to know about Limonious through collecting records. I can’t remember the first time I noticed his work, but I think it was probably the Stalag LP for me too that drew me into his world.

Why has this retrospective of Limonious’s work come now, 17 years after his death?

Christopher Bateman: I have no clue, to be honest. His work is undeniably interesting, cohesive and expressive. Lesser artists have definitely been given retrospectives. 

Al Newman: It does seem strange that such a prolific and influential artist has not had a retrospective until now. I think in general, apart from a few exceptions, there are not many people documenting dancehall music, and those that do tend to focus on the music rather than the graphics. Also there has been no readily available information about Limonious in the public sphere, so any book about him would need to involve a lot of first-hand research, talking to people who knew him. There are many other artists and designers who have worked in reggae and dancehall music that deserve to be more widely documented and celebrated, for example people such as Orville ‘Bagga’ Case, Jamaal Pete, Jethro ‘Paco’ Dennis, Ras Daniel Hartman and even more well-known people such as Neville Garrick. We're hoping to be able to document the work of these and other artists going forward as part of a project called Art in the Dancehall which began a few years ago.

“Limonious was a comedic genius” – Al Newman

What would you say his influence has been on the dancehall scene, and where can we see it now?

Al Newman: Cartoon artwork had been used in reggae before Limonious began designing LP covers, but he brought something new and unique to the scene and definitely influenced the work of other graphic artists working in dancehall. His style is still emulated today, perhaps most obviously in terms of mainstream audience, in the aesthetic of Diplo’s Major Lazer project. Ferry Gouw, who is the illustrator responsible for the Major Lazer artwork, was originally given a load of reggae and dancehall LP covers by Diplo and his manager Kevin Kusatsu, for inspiration, and many of those covers were by Limonious. Ferry told us that after seeing those covers, he immediately knew who and what Major Lazer should be. 

Christopher Bateman: I think it’s safe to say that his work was informed by the artistic culture that it came from as much as it influenced subsequent art. Lettering and illustrations like his were very likely part of the landscape as much then as they are now in Jamaica. He was a very skilful artist and he had the unique opportunity of working for a number of high-profile music clients.

Was it only after his passing that this influence was realised, or did he achieve notoriety while he was alive?

Christopher Bateman: He definitely achieved a level of notoriety while he was alive. His covers were being noticed by local and international record buyers as a sign of quality recordings. I know of at least two fans of Limonious who came from abroad to meet the man behind the iconic LP covers: DJ G-Conqueror from Japan and journalist Michael Golous from Sweden. 

Al Newman: Yeah, I think many of the people who were exposed to those covers fell in love with the artwork and began to recognise the name Limonious. Also, dancehall producers would request his artwork, so within the scene his name was known, but outside of that not at all, apart from in Jamaica where he became relatively well-known for his newspaper cartoons.

Why was humour so important to his work?

Christopher Bateman: Humour was a big part of early dancehall music and it made a lot of sense that he was selected to design these album covers.

Al Newman: Limonious was a comedic genius and, as Chris said, his style lent itself perfectly to the fun and humour of dancehall music.

In your opinion, why do you think dancehall is so loved?

Christopher Bateman: The immediacy in the delivery and lyrical content is really powerful. The whole riddim aspect of dancehall – reusable musical canvases for DJs and singers to jump on – really builds a great culture of creativity within a set of parameters; hearing how a singer treats a riddim differently from a DJ, for example, is really exciting.

Which of his works are among your favourites?

Christopher Bateman: Animal Party by Papa San, Ghost Buster by Early B, Granville Crew DJs by various artists (for the jacket, not the music on the album!) and of course the Original Stalag 17, 18 and 19. I also really like the front cover for the various artists album Race Course Rock. Oh, and Frankie Paul’s Shut Up Bway

Al Newman: In terms of the LP jackets, those are some of my favourites for sure, plus there’s Dancehall Time by various artists, Ram Jam Master by various artists, the back cover of Lick Shot by Michael Palmer, the back cover of Weekend Loving by Jennifer Lara, The Marshall by Cocoa Tea, and others like Punany TrainAnother ShotDancehall Youth Splash, there are so many. Outside of music, I think his cover illustration for the book Nanny is amazing. It was produced during his time at Jamal, the Jamaican Movement for the Advancement of Literacy, where he worked in-house in the mid-to-late-1970s.

In Fine Style: The Dancehall Art of Wilfred Limonious is out now via One Love Books