4 Corners: An interview with Michael Thompson AKA Freestylee

This month we head to the Caribbean, or more specifically one of its biggest islands, Jamaica. Last year was a momentous year in Jamaica’s history; celebrating 50 years of independence from Britain with global events, coupled with the most outstanding display of sprint athletics the world has ever seen at London’s 2012 Olympics.

In sport and music, there is no doubting the enormous impact Jamaica has made on the world, but what about in design?

Were he still alive today, I would have loved to have interviewed Wilfred Limonious; a designer and graphic artist who made a real name for himself in the 80s and early 90s with colourful, charming and characterful artwork for many Jamaican LP record covers – a sample of his work is shown at the end of this article.

Instead, we are extremely fortunate to feature the talents of Michael Thompson, AKA Freestylee. Someone who I believe carries on in Wilfred’s tradition in championing reggae music, but with a strong, sophisticated illustrative style all of his own.Michael Thompson

Michael Thompson, AKA Freestylee. Jamaican graphic designer and founder of the International Reggae Poster Contest.

What’s your background?

I am Jamaican by birth. I left for the United States in 1990, and worked as a freelance graphic designer with companies such as Citigroup, Sanofi Aventis, Bank of America and Estée Lauder. I am also a Creative Activist, using social design as a tool for awareness on a number of international concerns and solidarity. I am the founder of the International Reggae Poster Contest; a visual arts celebration of the positive impact of reggae music globally, and a platform to present a vision to establish a Reggae Hall of Fame in Kingston, Jamaica. I have had a number of international exhibitions of my Freestylee work; one-man show and group exhibitions.Dancehallstylee, by Michael Thompson

Dancehallstylee, by Michael Thompson

How did you get started in design?

I studied graphic design at the Jamaica School of Art. After finishing my studies my first work was in a small screen-printing operation operated by a Rastafarian by the name of Jah Ned. There I learned to experiment with simple silhouetted graphic design concepts suitable for screen-printing and poster art. It was after winning a poster contest to Cuba that I had a break and was hired as an apprentice with the Daily News newspaper in Jamaica. This was a big step closer to what I wanted to do: layout and design. In the mid ‘80s, I was offered a job at Paisley Kelly Kenyon & Eckhart Advertising in Kingston, Jamaica. Many years later, I joined a public relations firm Mike Jarrett Communications, also in Kingston, as an Art Director. My activist poster designs started in the late 1970s. My first activist poster was created after an incident in Jamaica called the “Green Bay Massacre”. This took place 5 January, 1978, where a number of alleged young gang members from a poor inner-city ghetto in Kingston were lured to a military firing range outside the capital where they were ambushed and executed by the Jamaica Defense Force soldiers. Back then, I had no computer so it was strictly hand-painted acrylic on poster paper. My recent episodes of creative activism started about 2008. I began the journey of Freestylee, Artist Without Borders, a new phase in my awareness activism.Emperor Haile Selassie, by Michael Thompson

Emperor Haile Selassie, by Michael Thompson

What challenges did you face/overcome in getting into the industry and achieving your ambitions?

As a young designer just completing art school and without job experience, it was not easy to find positions in Jamaica as a graphic designer or as an illustrator. I had to make connections and work my way through the hurdles by constantly improving my portfolio and finding other opportunities, and use this process to learn new things that later on I could apply to my creativity process. In 1978, I entered a local poster competition and won a place on the Jamaican delegation to the 11th World Festival of Youth and Students in Havana, Cuba. You can imagine the jubilation at the time. This was a massive event with youths from many countries participating in political and cultural activates. I entered again in 1982, and won another place, this time to Moscow, the 12th Festival of youth and students. These competitions and trips further sparked my interest in poster art. The colourful silkscreen and lithograph posters I saw in Cuba, created by ICAIC (Cuban Institute of Cinematic Art and Industry) and its sister offshoot OSPAAAL (Organization in Solidarity with the People of Africa, Asia, and Latin America) made a tremendous impact on my work. If you are familiar with Cuban poster design you can see the influence in my Freestylee posters. It was an exciting and important time for me. The poster competitions and visits to Havana and Moscow created opportunities and opened doors for me in Jamaica, due to the exposure and publicity my works received. Moving to America I had to make new connections and start the process all over again. I had no computer skills to be a designer so I ended up designing T-shirts the old fashioned way for a small company called Wet Paint, in NYC. I later bought a computer and taught myself how to use this new technology. Dancehall, by Michael Thompson

Dancehall, by Michael Thompson

Who are your greatest inspirations and influences?

My source of inspiration can come from anything or anywhere. Everything around me comes into play by keeping an open mind. My work has been influenced by a number of artists, designers and events. The influences do not materialize from any one source. My visit to Havana exposed me to the works of designers in that country and the fine art of poster design. This was an amazing cultural experience that had influenced greatly my design aesthetics. Some of the Cuban designers who greatly influenced my own art are names like René Azcuy, Fabian Muñoz, Nelson Ponce and Eladio Ravidulia. Other contemporary socially conscious artist on my list are JR, Ai Weiwei, Banksy, these are the people I admire for the activism as well as their artworks as well. I also admire the creativity of Greek illustrator and designer, Charis Tsevis, Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, love his fun colorful works. I am also influenced by Roots Reggae Artistes such as, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Burning Spear. Their messages of truth, equal rights and Justice are ever inspiring and comforting.

What is the project you are most proud of?

I have no one piece to single out. Yes, some are more memorable of course, because of the impact the work has had. My Haiti Posters, designed in solidarity with the people of Haiti, devastated by the 2010 earthquake, are the ones I am happy to have contributed to the Haiti Poster Project. I am also proud of my Arab Spring posters supporting the grass roots uprising across the Middle East region to remove oppressive governments from their backs.Haiti poster, by Michael Thompson

Haiti poster, by Michael Thompson

What would be your dream job or project?

I have already started on a dream project. The Reggae Hall of Fame. In 2012, I started a “why not?” campaign to establish a Reggae Hall of Fame Museum in Kingston, Jamaica. Interest in this led to my founding the International Reggae Poster Contest. Today, my partner Maria Papaefstathiou, and I have successfully launched the second annual contest in 2013. For the inaugural contest in 2012, we received 1,142 Posters from 80 countries. We also held two exhibitions of the top 100 posters. The first exhibition was held at the National Gallery of Jamaica, and the second at AKTO Design College in Athens, Greece. We also auctioned a selection of posters from the contest in Kingston, Jamaica, and raised over US$6,000 for an important Institution in the history of reggae music, the Alpha Boys’ School. Alpha Boys’ School is a Sister of Mercy run school for wayward boys in Kingston, Jamaica. This school is credited with shaping the musical journey of many of the founding fathers of Reggae Music. Raising money for this school is one of the contest objectives. I also had the opportunity to rebrand the school’s corporate image. The director of the school Sister Susan Frasier, decided to use one of my iconic Poster images to celebrate the school’s new logo.

Please name some people in your field that you believe deserve credit or recognition.

There are many in the field who deserve to be recognized in the field of graphics and poster design. For example, some of the new young Cuban artists who have taken the baton from the earlier masters. Today, access to the wider world is still limited to Cuban designers due to the limited access to high speed Internet and the embargo. Slanted magazine, from Germany, an independent publication on graphic design, typography, photography, and illustration— has launched a crowd-funding initiative for a project to expose the works of the amazing young Cuban poster designers through their magazine. I am delighted that they are reaching out to the young Cuban designers and giving them an opportunity to share their art on such an international scale. There are also other young artist and designers who are creating powerful designs and illustrations; Taj Francis, a young Jamaica illustrator is one to be applauded for powerful and dynamic illustrations. Dane Thompson, who is my son, for his urban design aesthetics that are outside the box. I find his creative visual expression captivating and fresh.

What’s your best piece of advice for those wanting to follow in your footsteps?

I am not always one to give advice, However, the best advice I can give is to be passionate in what you do. Open your hearts and eyes to the issues of the wider world. Educate yourself about the problems confronting a large segment of the world’s population; poverty, oppression and lack of resources we take for granted in the western world. We are designers and we have powerful tools at our disposal so lets use them to help bring about positive change and support those who are making a difference for the marginalized and impoverished people of the world.Egypt Revolution, by Michael Thompson

Egypt Revolution, by Michael Thompson

What’s next for you?

I am looking forward to new opportunities for Freestylee exhibitions in 2013. At the moment, I am in discussion with a gallery in New York, for an upcoming Freestylee poster exhibition in Spring. On 14 April 2013, I will be conducting a talk about my work at the Allentown Arts Museum in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I am also looking ahead for more creative activism initiatives that will make a difference, and to expand the International Reggae Poster contest campaign toward our objective the Reggae Hall of Fame Museum.

Nah Leave Di Area, by Wilfred Limonious

Nah Leave Di Area, by Wilfred Limonious

Wild Apache album cover, by Wilfred Limonious

Wild Apache album cover, by Wilfred Limonious

Christmas Time, by Wilfred Limonious

Christmas Time, by Wilfred Limonious

Special thanks and credits to Maria Papaefstathiou, graphic designer and blogger based in Greece and to the record label, Power House and Christopher Bateman for use of the Wilfred Limonious artworks via the websites;wilfredlimonious.com and infinestyle.wordpress.com.

For more information Michael’s work visit www.freestylee.net

This month’s network of events


TYPO | San Francisco 2013: Part of an annual series of international design talks, TYPO San Francisco takes the theme of ‘Contrast and Compare’; inviting speakers and audience members to reflect on this idea in the design world. 11-12 April at Yerba Buena Center for Arts, 701 Mission Street (at 3rd Street)
San Francisco, CA 94103-3138.  For more information, go to typotalks.com/sanfrancisco/


Saint Lucia Jazz & Arts Festival. Revamped and redesigned with a new broader vision, this premier Caribbean cultural event will showcase acclaimed global artistes and artisans over 13 days on a beautiful island in the sun. From 30 April to 12 May 2013. Visit www.stluciajazz.org for details.


Candice Breitz / The Woods. The first solo show of Johannesburg-born artist, Candice Breitz. Featuring a trilogy of video installations which look into the world of child performers and the performance of childhood in order to probe the dreams and promises embedded in mainstream cinema. Runs until 30 March at Goodman Gallery, 163 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood, Johannesburg, 2193. For more information visit www.goodman-gallery.com


Afrofuture: As part of Milan Design Week, La Rinascente’s flagship store will be celebrating the world’s original design festival Salone del Mobilein dynamic style for 2013 as it presents ‘Afrofuture’. Through media, events and performance, La Rinascente will demonstrate the exciting mind-shift in African technology and how it’s radically shaping new notions of design. Milan Design Week runs from 9-12 April. For more information visit www.afrofuture.it or contact Cristina@karlaotto.com at the press office.

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