Shane Aquart is Dready or Dready is Shane Aquart. At some point everything morphed: Dready, the spliff-burning dreadlocked stick figure in red, green and gold into an art form, and his creator, a Jamaican-born Caymanian with an advertiser’s instinct for branding and a wicked sense of humour, into Dready himself.
Dreadyness, which we dare identify as the whimsical style inspired by the original character, is easy to define once you have had a long look at a Dready piece. Once there’s a Dready around, it’s hard not to stare or to smile: you either get the joke immediately, or you are inspired to figure it out.
The foundation of Dreadyness is its Caribbean heritage: with playful pops of vibrant colour, the simplicity of the images and the irreverent humour, Dreadyness is the Caribbean making fun of itself and having a grand old time doing so. In a way, that has been the only thing that has remained constant through all iterations of Dready art.
When Dready first popped up around 2004 in Barbados, Grenada and the British Virgin Islands, it was as a design element intended for curios—coffee mugs, bookmarks, T-shirts, baseball caps and the like. Aquart first started creating images for Ganzee T-shirts at the urging of his friend Allison Knowles Kern, a key player in the then Dready experiment. The pair had big plans for Dready, and soon their T-shirt line was making moderate returns. But shortly after Hurricane Ivan ravaged Grenada and much of the Caribbean, Aquart was forced to revise his concept and output.
“After Ivan, as we were regrouping, there followed what was the start of the global financial crisis, and you could literally see the sales trickling off in the years leading up to 2008. cruise arrivals in Barbados began to trickle off as fuel prices skyrocketed…things began to change before they collapsed.”
The next step came serendipitously: when people began to ask him to create portraits in Dready-like stick figures: “That was, and still is the most amazing thing to me, because people still do ask to be realised’ in stick figures as well as other forms of Dreadyness… but that the style, the vibe made people so happy that they wanted to be represented in it.”
Those first commissioned Dreadys kick-started the form’s ascendancy: soon Aquart began getting requests for him to do portraits of houses, their children and more.
Today a Dready can appear in almost any form: prints on canvas, on or as commissioned specialty pieces that may end up as portraiture, invitations, or installations. In fact, he says, about half of all Dreadys are commissioned pieces, inspired by family portraits, houses, scenes or moments that people have asked him to render with Dreadyness.
As Dready evolved, so did his audience. In Grand Cayman, where Aquart calls home, Dreadys popped up everywhere, a distinctive ubiquitous art form that the island quickly claimed as its own. Soon, Dreadys were being snapped up by the islands’ resident and visiting art collectors alike: “billionaires, bankers, movie producers, yacht team owners and companies so large they’re the largest whatever in the world.” Anyone who could buy any art, it seemed, liked themselves some Dready.
“It’s weird and wonderful. dready’s expansion has been explosive, its really happened quickly. four years ago I was Shane, now, everyone here in cayman, people in Jamaica and all over the place, just call me dready.” Today, far from gracing humble cotton, dreadys are just as likely to be found on some very sexy walls around the world. But more important than “who owns one,” says Aquart, is knowing how the art makes people feel, like the one hanging in a home in Lecco, Italy, whose owner wrote a note the other day to say how their dready made them feel warm and happy whenever they looked at it.
“People get it’ in different ways, eh… It’s really interesting to watch people look at a dready: children are instantly attracted to the bright colours and adults become absorbed in them. This thing that started as a caribbean thing has really gone out into the world, and people from everywhere can see something that’s familiar, something that evokes a happy feeling, a memory or just a smile.”
Dready now has gallery representation or artist agencies in Cayman, Montego Bay, Kingston Jamaica, Galveston, Texas, Kauai Hawaii, Los Angeles (LA) California and the United Kingdom (Uk). “There are Dreadys everywhere these days; right now I am working on commissions for New Zealand, Cayman, London and projects in Jamaica, LA, UK, and Thailand of all places, but that one’s giving me a warm smile!” Dready has transcended his beginnings, while still keeping a firm footing in his Caribbean-ness, both artistically and personally.
Contrary to the image created by his laid-back often ganja-smoking alter-ego, Shane Aquart is a prolific professional. This year he’s been working on three hotel projects, creating images for their lobbies, and guest rooms, the re-emergence of a Dready t-shirt line, the possibility of group and solo shows, the placement of art in new places…It’s a dizzying pace, but ultimately very rewarding. “I don’t mind working at this rate, because I love doing this and I smile every time I look at one of these Dreadys—I really do—and I hope that comes out in the art,” says Aquart.
Between commissions, advertisements, prints, bookmarks and post cards, a number of which were auctioned for charity or donated for giveaways to support his favourite charities. He estimates there are about 350 original Dreadys around the world. It takes about two and a half months to create a commissioned Dready, which requires a mountain of research and interviews.
“It’s the idea that’s the hard part, the Dreadyness, the little thing that you’re looking for. I ask people for a lot of information. I ask for a ton of photos, their nicknames, lives, childhood memories, likes, dislikes and in it all I am looking for a little bit of happy,” he explains.
The volume of research belies the simplicity of the finished product, but at its core, Dreadyness is also about innate simplicity. He uses the fewest lines possible, and as few elements as possible, and colour is an essential element in the narrative. Sometimes, says Aquart, a Dready will start with a colour: a flash of a dress, the sky, a passing car. And sometimes, finding, or creating, the right colour can be brutal.
But the real key to Dready seems to be its innate simplicity. “I remember a day I was at breakfast, in Cayman, working on an image and a friend, Daniel Ebanks, stopped by me and looking over my shoulder said: naw man, you’re trying too hard, you need to make it simpler.’” Daniel’s “Dready chicken” still appears as a thing in many Dreadys. “It all kinda comes together when I just work backward toward the simplicity.”
To hear the artist tell his family’s history is to experience a recounting of the story of the Caribbean. There have been Aquarts living in the Caribbean since the 1700s: from the first arrivals in Martinique, the family, its heirs and successors subsequently established roots in St Lucia, Grenada, Jamaica, Belize, and now, Cayman. Aquart himself grew up all over, but considers “home” to be a cool and easy tie between Cayman and Jamaica, a fact reflected strongly in all the art he produces.
“Dready is a true Caribbean creation. Yes, heavily influenced by Jamaica, perhaps, but isn’t the whole region, hmmm, the whole world even? In all Dreadys, no matter if I’m doing a picture of San Angelo in Venice or an old ferry in Belize, there’s always a little red gold and green,” he says. The next step in the evolution? Just getting more art and more smiles out into the world.
“How many Dreadys could there be? Who knows? I love doing Dreadys, I love the commissions, I love the one that comes out of my head. I’ve sold every Dready that I’ve ever drawn and put up for sale, and every one of them has made me smile—even the ideas make me smile! I could do this forever,” says Dready.