Wilfred Limonious began his career illustrating phonics books and short stories for a national literacy programme and creating comics for Jamaican newspapers and magazines. But he was best known for his album covers: in the 1980s and 90s, he created sleeves for hundreds of dancehall records and hand-drawn logos for several labels.
In Fine Style: The Dancehall Art of Wilfred Limonious is the first retrospective of Limonious’s work and brings together album art, comics and drawings from throughout his thirty-year career. Written by Christopher Bateman and edited by DJ and curator Al ‘Fingers’ Newman, the book contains commentary from family and friends alongside essays exploring humour and satire in visual culture and the emergence of dancehall in the 1980s.
Limonious’s colourful scenes were inspired by dancehall culture and everyday life in Jamaica. Record sleeves show streets lined with fruit stalls, clubs with massive sound systems, DJs puffing on reefers and mothers gossiping while washing clothes. Jokes and exchanges are uttered in Jamaican Patois, with words housed in hand-drawn speech bubbles.
He began illustrating anonymously for Jamaican label Sonic Sounds but once his identity was revealed, Limonious’s artwork was in high demand. He went on to work for some of Jamaica’s leading labels and his bold, cartoonish images perfectly captured the energy and attitude of dancehall – a more playful genre than the political reggae which had dominated the 1970s.
In an introductory essay, journalist and photographer Beth Lesser notes: “Limonious was a true folk artist in his style, subject matter and use of patois – through his art, he invites us to laugh at ourselves and at our neighbours. Like the comedians in the pantomimes, he based his illustrations on typical Jamaican personalities and situations, exaggerating them to bring out the absurdity and humour. He drew what he saw every day in the streets of Kingston – the handcart man, the dread with his big-head spliff, the rudeboy rushing past on his motorcycle”.
Limonious was known for working quickly, sometimes completing two or three projects in a day. “You give Limonious the job in the morning, in the evening he’d bring it back,” notes Ossie Thomas, a producer at Black Solidarity Records, in the book. Vincent Dillon, a former designer at Solo-Graphic Printers, recalls that he would use few tools – just two weights of black marker pen and pencils to indicate what colours the printer should use.
Limonious died in 1999 aged just 50 but as Bateman notes, he created a lasting template for dancehall art. The swagger, humour and bold colours in his work continue to inspire dancehall visuals today – electronic music producer Diplo recently commissioned illustrator Ferry Gouw to create Limonious-inspired artwork for his music project Major Lazer, telling Newman: “Limonious’s work was a catalyst for the Major Lazer project. His style created a unique universe out of everyday Jamaican life, making it fantastic and epic.”
Bateman says he became obsessed with Limonious after discovering his work in a record store but struggled to find anything about him online, aside from a Myspace tribute page managed by Dan Prin. (Many of the LPs featured in the book are from Prin’s personal collection, while sketches and comics were sourced from private collections and national archives). After contacting historians, labels and anyone he could find with the surname Limonious, he travelled to Jamaica to track down the artist’s family and friends.
The book came about when Newman – who has previously put on exhibitions of dancehall art – discovered a blog Bateman had set up to document his findings. “I contacted him to see if he was interested in collaborating on a book, and thankfully he was up for it. Almost six years later, it’s finally ready!” says Newman.
Writing about his fascination with Limonious’s work, Bateman says: “For foreigners like myself, Wilfred Limonious’s album jackets have long provided a peek over the zinc fence into Jamaican dancehall culture. For those more immediately familiar with the real-life scenes that he created, they are instantly recognisable.” The book presents a vast selection of work, celebrating Limonious’s contribution not just to dancehall music but to Jamaican visual culture.
In Fine Style: The Dancehall Art of Wilfred Limonious is published by One Love Books and costs £35. You can order copies here. The book was designed by Emery Dash and Al Newman.