by Matt Goias
Driving along Jamaica’s lush and dizzyingly serpentine tropical roadways, the typographically-inclined will immediately notice that each area has a local “signman”. From the capital city of Kingston, to small, rural towns like Porus, Lucea, and Santa Cruz, the distinctive hand-styles of local signpainters, with their varying characters, lettering, and color palettes, give each locale a unique visual flavor.
The signman-of-choice in the Westernmost Parish of Westmoreland is man called Nurse who has over 30 years of experience painting commercial art for the businesses of the community. His brilliantly colored and seemingly ubiquitous canon of hand-painted signs adorn church halls, strip clubs, nail salons, grocery stores, daycare centres, and rum bars.
““Mi always know mi love di art ting and so mi jus stick wid it from long time. I was working as a truck driver, driving sugar from Westmoreland to Kingston and mi elder, a sign boss named London, knew of my art talent and told me the truck driving thing would never benefit me.” Nurse began an apprenticeship with the established sign
painter and learned the trade, applying his own style and eventually parting ways to begin a sign business of his own.
Most frequently, his works can be seen nailed to trees and electric poles promoting the never-ending itinerary of dancehall events which take place weekly throughout the countryside. These “dances” feature world-famous dancehall and reggae sound systems who come from all over the island to “string up” their towering speaker walls and play the latest musical sounds for crowds of eager revelers.
Scarce digital output equipment and the shoestring budgets of most of these rural events create the perfect circumstances under which the hand painted advertisements can flourish.
The indigenous artwork is so tightly associated with the culture of the island that many of Jamaica’s internationally renowned culinary destinations have incorporated the works into their decor. Jake’s Hotel’s Jack Sprat restaurant, Newcastle’s Eits Cafe, and Negril’s Pushcart Jerk Center all feature the technicolored signage in their dining areas.
Gary Matalon is the co-owner (Along with Olympic Gold-Medalist, Usain Bolt) of popular Kingston Jamaica restaurant, Usain Bolt’s Tracks & Records. Having used the ubiquitous signs as a major design element in his busy eatery, Matalon says, “Dancehall signs have been around as long as I can remember… They are an iconic part of the Jamaican street scene and I think that as a result they give you that emotional connection with Jamaica. They are a part of the landscape and I love them. That’s why I used them at Tracks & Records.”
The signs are painted on a type of laminated particle board that Nurse calls “Solutex”, and the various painters share a honor system in which the best real estate for posting goes to whomever gets there first. It is also common for the signmen to help themselves to the posted boards of events that have passed.
Nurse explains, “I wouldn’t call it stealing but I will say that when I see a board for an event that happened six weeks ago, I do begin the recycling process.”
Regarded throughout the area as kind and wise, the beloved community leader (who got his nickname by voluntarily caring for an elderly neighbor when he was young) is perhaps even more known for his work coaching over one hundred young local athletes in his role as the President and main coach of Negril’s champion Football Club.
At all hours, day and night, the artist can be found working in his shop located in the Negril Bus Park (the area’s transportation hub). With the soccer field just behind this bustling town center, he often floats from sign work, to coaching, to selling loose cigarettes and drinks from his shop, and even occasionally driving a taxi (and nailing up signs) on the route between Negril and Westmoreland’s capital of Savannah La Mar.
In recent times, the popularity of his Instagram feed has kept him even busier than usual, receiving commissions from international clients including rapper Allen Kingdom, reggae superstar Chronixx, The Jamaica Board of Tourism, UK producer Cadenza, Stussy, Rockhouse Hotel, and New York City’s popular Radio Nuovo.
When asked about his opinions of other sign work seen on the road, Nurse said, “Of course my eyes always gravitate to good work when I see it. That’s why I must always work to upgrade my thing.”
Check Nurse’s Instagram feed for daily updates of his work and that of the many talented sign painters from around Jamaica.
This article was originally published by Mass Appeal in 2016