Dan Madsen’s hand-painted work is displayed across the Twin Cities, but he rarely signs his own name.
His masterpieces are carefully traced out on coffee shop walls, the bricks of breweries and store windows sometimes no more than an arm long or in other instances, several stories high.
As one of a handful of local sign painters, Madsen, 27, has helped keep a dying art alive one bold letter at a time.
“Hand-painted signs are always going to be unique,” Madsen said. “They are never going to be cookie cutter. … If you do it right, it will be there for a very, very long time.”
A drive through the Twin Cities will reveal a long history of sign painting in the area. The faded “ghost signs” that float on the brick buildings of St. Paul’s Lowertown and the Minneapolis North Loop have added to the appeal of trendy neighborhoods for some admirers. Hand-painted signs and billboards were a dominant means of advertising until the emergence of cheap vinyl lettering in the early 1980s. Now, few traditional sign painters are left.
While sign painting is uncommon nowadays, there is a market for people who appreciate the quality of the work, said Paul Kolodge, president of the Advertising Federation of Minnesota, and an account executive at Clear Channel Outdoor.
“I really think it’s a day and age where authenticity and customization resonates with people,” Kolodge said.
Madsen has a design lineage. His great-grandfather used to paint signs for General Outdoor Advertising, once the largest billboard company in the country. His grandfather was a calligrapher and medical illustrator for the VA Hospital in Minneapolis.
Madsen remembers as a kid that he used to like to doodle his name over and over again in his notebooks. He would also spend time in his grandfather’s studio and play with his calligraphy pens, he said.
A decade ago when his grandfather died, Madsen inherited supplies, including calligraphy pens, drafting tools and brushes, and books from both men, a treasure trove that pushed him to explore a career as a sign painter. Madsen started Dusty Signs in 2009, following in his family’s footsteps.
He said he see himself as more of a skilled craftsman than an artist.
“I’m not like a Jackson Pollock,” he said. “I know what my job is and it’s ‘this’ and it has to read ‘this.’ I’ve always liked heights and doing things big and being outside. I remember when I was a kid, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I wanted to work with my hands and be outside.”
No gloves on cold day
One chilly winter afternoon, Madsen was painting the side of a tattoo parlor in northeast Minneapolis. He wore a puffy jacket and a knit cap but no gloves as he painted a drop shadow on a sign that read “Fade Away.” There is a splash of paint thinner in his paint to prevent it from thickening in the cold.
“With all the challenges of the weather and the elements and the heights, that kind of stuff, that’s what keeps it really fresh,” he said, as he meticulously worked, only stopping when he accidentally pressed a blotch outside the lines. “Paint always goes over paint so that’s all good,” he said, with a laugh.
The job that day only required a ladder. Sometimes, Madsen has to work from suspended scaffolding.
It can take days to finish a project — not including the work Madsen does in his studio to map out the design and trace it on paper.
“With it being hand painted you just pay attention to the details a whole lot more. … You are thinking about the longevity of it, not only wanting it to look good, but for it to last a long time as well,” he said.
He started to work at Northeast sign shop SignMinds in 2007, when he graduated from high school. He started out a shop boy sweeping and doing other tasks before he was allowed to use a spray gun to paint the backgrounds of large electrical signs. It was at SignMinds that Madsen learned how to mix colors, he said.
After he inherited his grandfather’s supplies, he began to really start practicing painting signs by hand and studied different fonts. He attended Minneapolis Community and Technical College, where he eventually earned a two-year degree in fine art.
When Madsen practiced painting signs for fun and posted them online, people started to hire him for real projects.
Sue Kruskopf, chief executive of Kruskopf & Co., a Minneapolis ad agency, found Madsen after asking around for someone who could do gold-leaf lettering on a window for the Truth Bar she opened downstairs at her advertising agency. While the bar doesn’t actually sell alcohol, Kruskopf wanted the space to resemble a lounge where clients or her workers would want to meet for a drink.
“It’s so old school in such a great way,” she said. “You just can’t duplicate the feel of it and the look of it. There’s no way.”
Search for other sign painters
As he began his sign-painting career, Madsen searched for others who had experience in the craft. He traveled to Berkeley, Calif., to study from a painter, and he also took a motorcycle trip through Europe studying signs.
“He reminds me very much of myself at his age,” said Bill Hueg, a St. Paul artist who Madsen looked up to as a sign mentor. “He just can’t get enough. … I’m just so excited that he is picking up a craft this old in this modern day. I’m even happier that he’s able to make a living doing it.”
It’s another day in Madsen’s St. Paul studio. It smells like burnt paper as he uses a retro tool called an “electro pounce,” an electric pencil that allows artists to punch holes in paper as they trace their design. Madsen wears gloves because it’s possible he can accidentally shock himself. Later, he will take the large 4-foot-by-8-foot paper and use it as a guide for a mural.
For Madsen, who does a job or two per week, the problem hasn’t been not having enough work but actually not having help to do it. Right now, he’s a one-man show that can make some large-scale jobs nearly impossible to take on, he said. It’s been hard to find someone who will take the time to really learn and not just think of sign painting as a fad, Madsen said.
Eventually, Madsen wants to grow his business to do work for large iconic brands instead of one-off jobs. He likes the feeling of working on big projects.
“When you get down from a job like that and you look at it, it’s very rewarding.”