Industry Watch

A sign of character

Why the business of hand-painted signs hasn’t dried up for Dan Madsen

By Erica Rivera
Thursday, May 29, 2014

Sign painter Dan Madsen likes to take it slow. 
“In the world we live in now, everyone wants something really fast,” he says. “They don’t care what their sign looks like because they just want to open up.”
Madsen prefers the old-fashioned form of hand-painted signs. “A hand-painted sign has a timeless look,” he says.
Madsen was preceded in the business by his great-grandfather, who worked for General Outdoor Advertising, the largest billboard company in America at one time (it later became Naegele), and by his grandfather, a calligrapher and medical illustrator for the VA Hospital in Minneapolis.
Not someone “who jumped out of school with a graphic design degree,” Madsen is mostly self-taught. After his grandfather passed away, Madsen went through his studio, where he used to doodle as a child. He discovered his grandfather’s old books, brushes, drawings, and photographs. Madsen studied them, then started practicing while working at SignMinds in Northeast Minneapolis. 
He cites Ben Janssens, his former boss and owner of SignMinds, as an invaluable mentor. Janssens gave Madsen advice on everything from how to approach clients to how to price jobs. “I probably wouldn’t be where I am today without him,” Madsen says. 
In 2008, he struck out on his own as Dusty Signs. His marketing technique was old-school, going door-to-door with business cards. He distributed 300 cards in that first go-round and landed two jobs. Being “really hungry,” he says, kept him motivated. 
Other fruitful strategies in Madsen’s journey include a 90-second video that his friend Hunter Johnson made of him painting, set to Artie Shaw & Helen Forrest singing the 1930s hit “Deep Purple.” After it was posted on Vimeo, “that created a little buzz and people re-blogged it,” Madsen says. “That gave me an Internet presence. It was a pretty big stepping stone.”
Madsen also stays in the public eye by doing art shows, including the signs-as-art exhibit “Sign Related” at CO Exhibitions in Minneapolis. He also painted title graphics for the “Album: Cinematheque Tangier” exhibit at the Walker Art Center. 
“We all have the same mentality of being creative and creating things by hand,” Madsen says of his artistic comrades. “Staying in touch with the arts community definitely helps me because the word gets spread around.”
Many of Madsen’s gigs are onsite; the others he works on from a studio on 38th and Bloomington in South Minneapolis. Clients tend to come to Madsen pre-branded by a designer, but once in a while, he’s allowed to unleash his creativity. 
“I let him run wild,” says John Lynden, owner of Lynden’s Soda Fountain in St. Paul. Madsen painted the storefront windows as well as the menu of the nostalgia-inducing venue. Lynden was so pleased with the work, he commissioned Madsen to paint his Lynden Realty office door and “For Sale” and “New Listing” signs.
“It doesn’t happen quite as much these days because of the computer world we live in,” Madsen says, “but I like to sit down with pencil and paper and sketch something up, then make it come to life with paint.”
Each project varies as far as cost and time are concerned. Madsen layers colors with hand-me-down paint brushes directly onto buildings, storefront windows, sheets of aluminum, or medium density overlay wood. Because he uses oil paint, which takes longer to dry, jobs range from a couple of days to two-and-a-half months. Madsen photographs and displays the jobs he’s done on his website and Flickr, where vintage fonts and high-contrast hues abound. Madsen has painted everything from the sides of a bus to a fabricated sign built to fit around a pillar.
The appeal of hand-painted signs lies in their uniqueness, in the care and effort that the artist infuses in the design, Madsen believes. They can better depict the ambiance of the business they advertise. “It’s a little more personal,” he says. “And I think it’s cooler.”
Lynden points out that “before 3M developed something you could shoot through the printer to make stickers for the windows,” all signs were hand-painted. Now, signs err on the homogenous side. But the difference between mass-produced and one-of-a-kind impacts not only a business’s image, but the feel of entire cities. If we see the same signs everywhere, how long will it be until consumers stop paying attention?
Christian Johnson, owner of Spyhouse Coffee in Minneapolis, had context in mind when he commissioned Madsen to hand-paint the exterior sign for Spyhouse’s third location on Broadway Street. Whereas Spyhouse went with neon signs for its Hennepin and Nicollet locations, Johnson wanted the new cafe’s sign to mirror the historic feel of the Northeast Minneapolis neighborhood. “It fits in with the period of the building and the style and character of the space,” Johnson says of the bold, black-and-white letters adorning the building.
Johnson brought the logo and the color scheme to the table, while Madsen worked out the sizing of the exterior letters, as the city has constraints on the linear feet allowed for such projects. It took about a week to paint, and was far more economical than neon would have been.
“He’s super friendly, hospitable, punctual, organized,” Johnson says of Madsen. “He knows what he’s doing.”
Madsen hopes the trend of embracing artisan goods and services continues. As for the future of Dusty Signs, he’d like to supersize his designs and bring back hand-painted billboard advertising. 
“It’s like a lost art,” Lynden says. “It’s nice to see someone keeping the craft alive.”