Dave Arnold: Mr. Sign goes into design

Dave Arnold, better known as Mr. Sign, is the man behind the hand-painted storefronts and signs all over the city. Here is our portrait of an atypical and inspiring man.

How it began

Originally from Oakville, Ontario, Dave Arnold came to Montreal in the summer of 2004 and fell in love with the city. A few months later, he moved in with friends to a studio on St-Antoine Street. “We all had our beds over our desks. We thought Montreal was so cool, we just hadn’t planned for winter.” After the first month of winter, Dave was really wondering what he came here for. One of his friends asked him if he wanted to be a roadie for his touring band; “I said hell yes! Please get me the fuck out of here.” Dave made just enough money to pay his portion of the rent and keep his place in the loft. He travelled back and forth between Montreal and the touring cities; “I think it’s helped me get used to winter. In fact, I think I’m the only one of the original gang who stayed in Montreal…”.

The Emporium

When he returned to Montreal, friends of friends had moved into the loft; no more familiar faces, and so he began looking for a new space. He spoke with a friend of his who wanted to open an art gallery and the two of them decided to transform a space and open one together – the Emporium. There, he slept in a small room adjacent to the loft; “I was really living with art!” The duo ran the gallery for two years and Dave made many connections in the art world. They were receiving people from Toronto and New York, and the response to the gallery was incredible. Dave became interested in painting and one day decided to do a show when the gallery was unoccupied; “all my work was sold! Easiest money I have ever made!” Dave resumed the process and did another show of naked cartoon characters – Teenage nudes – (he completed only seven paintings and before they were finished, they were all sold out. He’s doing another series this year, contact him here).

“That’s where the idea for Mr. Sign came from. A way to market my art.” 

One winter, during the holiday season, Dave was looking to paint and make money. While waiting for work, he decided to offer hand-painted Santas for the window displays of storefronts on Notre Dame Street West.

Without knowing where he was, he entered Joe Beef and asked to speak to the manager. “There I saw this huge man approaching me and he really didn’t seem to want a Santa in his window:

  • ‘What do you want?’
  • ‘I wanted to know if you would like a hand-painted Santa for the holiday season in your window?’
  • ‘No. Go away’
  • (So I tiptoed out, hoping he wouldn’t hurt me – I’m kidding…)
  • ‘Wait a minute, I’m looking for someone to hand paint my store sign on the window. Can you do that?’
  • ‘Pfft, of course! You think I just paint Santas?! My job is to hand paint logos on store windows!’ (I’ve never done that before).
  • ‘Great, you have the job if you can do it.’

Right away I went home and googled for hours about window painting techniques. This was my chance and I didn’t want to let it go! Joe Beef’s sign took me weeks to complete. I wanted it to be perfect. The guys must have thought I was a perfectionist, but that’s just because I had never done one!”

Mr. Sign

Dave Arnold’s first year as Mr. Sign was mainly focused on finding techniques to paint on windows. Mr. Sign has now been around for six years. “It’s still very weird and unpredictable, but now it’s getting more and more stable as a business, I do the signs and also a lot of design contracts. After several years of doing signs, Mr. Sign now does a lot of design. “Clients started asking for design contracts automatically; it came naturally, I would end up doing quite a bit of logo design, 70-80% of the signs I did, I also did the design.” When he has his design contracts, he chooses the most appropriate techniques to pay homage to the sign; neon, vinyl, laser art, and so on. “Or obviously what’s best for me is if the design is more beautiful hand painted! I think I do more design than painting now.”

“Sure people think when you do something artistic it’s a dream come true, but it’s still a job. When I’m alone for hours painting a window instead of being with my wife and child, I’m doing it to pay the bills.”

A winning formula

Dave Arnold has had an impact on many of the landmarks and businesses we frequent on a daily basis. Mr. Sign’s popularity and good fortune comes from a combination of his consistently outstanding work, great talent, his story, humour, personality, and adaptability. Through his hard work and dedication, he has made satisfied customers who refer him by word of mouth; and like many other aspects of business, we believe that things that spread organically are much more likely to have a long term impact. Dave has now done over 100 businesses in and around Montreal and counting – he will soon be doing a job for the Montreal Canadiens!

“Sometimes I have potential clients who ask me why my prices are so much more expensive than a sticker on a window.” (Silence). “I always tell them that if they don’t understand the difference, they certainly shouldn’t do business with me!”

Photography by Ben Pobjoy / Dave Arnold par Anne et Rhodes Arnold

From the magazine