Food by VICE

How Restaurants Helped Launch This Montreal Artist's Career

I spoke to Mr. Sign, an eccentric Montreal artist, about why painting signs for legendary restaurants like Joe Beef has helped his art career.

by Courtney Baird-Lew
Dec 13 2015, 5:57pm

The formerly barren stretch of road known as Notre-Dame Street West has become a restaurant Mecca, seemingly overnight. Running straight from Montreal's Old Port all the way to the bowels of the newly gentrified neighborhood of St. Henri, the street has become lined with some of the industry's best and brightest establishments—the famous Joe Beef and its little sisters Liverpool House and Le Vin Papillon being the first to roll off the tongue. Praised for renewing interest in Little Burgundy (and Montreal as a whole), the quick rise of Joe Beef not only served as a signpost for the budding McMillan-Morin empire, but helped to define the path of an artist from Oakville, Ontario going by the name of 'Mr. Sign.'

After walking in off the street in Winter '09, and offering to paint a Santa Claus in Joe Beef's window—to which Dave McMillan responded with a "hell no, get out of my restaurant"—Mr. Sign ended up getting the counteroffer to do some hand-painted lettering instead. The end result was the now-trademark black and gold Joe Beef insignia painted directly onto the windows—Mr. Sign's first, real contract. Since then, Dave Arnold, the one-man-show behind Mr. Sign, has become responsible for designing the windows of no less than ten storefronts on Notre-Dame alone, and is slowly—but surely—building a small design empire. But out of the hundreds upon hundreds of artists living in this low-rent Brooklyn of the north, how is Dave Arnold such a success?


All photos by Ginga Takeshima.

Dave is a different breed of artist. Armed with indisputable talent and an overwhelmingly positive outlook on life, Dave is a far cry from the stereotypical "brooding artiste." He's the kind of person who makes friends quickly and knows how to keep them—not for potential favors down the line like other 'entrepreneurs' of his caliber, but because he genuinely likes them and enjoys their company; a rarity in any industry, let alone the world of corporate art. So, for the Dave McMillans of the world who can smell bullshit from a mile away, Mr. Sign is your man. And while most other artists have a distinctive style that they work with time and time again, Dave's custom signs are completely different from one to the next. "If you try to make them look identical, then nobody wants them," he says, sitting across from me at his studio's worktable, smoking his second cigarette. "Keeping them all different is necessary. For me, it's a huge pain in the ass. For me it's the beginning and end of a good idea. You're constantly digging up new reference images, new styles, new stuff to work from…so on the one hand, it's very satisfying, and on the other it's a huge pain."


Looking around his studio, it's clear that these references range from the surprisingly philosophical to the jokingly obscene. Every weird, wonderful thing is in its right place; the modestly-sized studio space organized in a way that only Dave could ever fully understand. Taking up an entire wall of its own is a massive paper calendar filled with all of his appointments; words like 'Sumac', 'Vin Pap', and 'POOL,' scrawled in big, blue letters. "As you can see with the calendar, the pool becomes an important part of my day where I just go with my wife and son and jump in a pool in the middle of a summer day. You know, on those really hot ones. I think if you don't put it on the calendar, it just never happens. Work and family really cuts into my time spent drinking beer and smoking doobies…. but the satisfaction of watching this guy go from a tiny lump into fully-functioning human is a really, incomparable satisfaction as well."


While Dave has focused almost exclusively on sign painting over the last six years, he's developing a way to extend the branches of Mr. Sign to incorporate full-on branding rather than just storefronts. With the working title of the Mr. Sign Design Corp, Dave's now honing in on a side of the business that promotes stable, month-by-month kind of work instead of tackling projects on a week-by-week basis. "It's not quite the re-brand of Mr. Sign, but at some point, it'll be exposed professionally as a full-on portfolio. It keeps getting thicker and juicier, so when I finally do bust the lid off it, it's going to be one hell of a presentation."


Early examples of this can be seen with the soon-to-be-launched North Star Bar on St. Laurent, and Bar de Courcelle in St. Henri; even the new windows at Le Vin Papillon point to the development of grander ideas that can't be tackled with just paint itself. According to Dave, the new windows "were a direct two-men collabo with me and McMillan—the Daves. The Daves got together on that one, and he said that he wanted them to look unlike anything he had done with his other restaurants, and anything I had done. So I started figuring out a lot of designs that I couldn't logically do in paint, but could really blast out in vinyl. It kind of looks like Dave McMillan and I were just high on acid for a week and then busted that out, which I kind of like! It's a real eye-catcher… and I'd even go as far as to use the word 'snazzy,' like, 'what a snazzy façade!'"


In terms of personal projects, Dave will be continuing a series of paintings throughout the winter called Teenage Nudes, wherein the ladies (and possibly some of the men) from Archie comics, tastefully pose on a background of rustic wood. "I'm trying to squelch all business by Christmas, so that when January hits, all I have to do is build a design empire and paint a bunch of naked ladies," he tells me, "just build a design empire, paint a bunch of naked ladies, and smoke a couple of 'doobs. Something that doesn't require client input, no sending notes back and forth—it'll just be me, sitting down, coming up with an idea, and busting it out the way I like it.'"

Despite the fact that the gears of the Mr. Sign industry are slowly turning and all of his ideas are falling delicately into place, Dave still doesn't consider himself a success. "There's people like executive art directors and shit—those people are making millions of dollars a year. I consider that a higher level of success in the arts community…but as far as a one-man-show, selling his own paintings? Maybe in that realm I'd be closer to one of the more successful. But if the question is how does that feel? Well it feels goddamn good. Oh God it feels so good. It's like every morning I wake up walking on a cloud, you know? Even on the cloudiest day the sun is still shining."

Joe Beef
liverpool house
Le Vin Papillon
Mr. Sign