by | Jul 21, 2020

Rolla man carries on hand-painted tradition

If you’ve traveled the main streets and back roads of central Missouri, chances are good you’ve seen David Davis’ artwork and not even known it. The mural welcoming you to downtown Rolla, a car dealership’s window pane or that family farm sign back in the hills of Maries County are more than just a hobby for David: They’re modern examples of a profession that may seem old-fashioned on the surface but has an enduring charm that endears it to businesses and passersby alike.

Since 1984, David’s one-man studio, Davis Signs, has carried on the calling of the hand-painted and hand-lettered sign maker. In an age where a consumer vinyl cutter can be purchased for a few hundred dollars from the local hobby story, that occupation sounds like a blast from the past. But around central Missouri it’s something of a common, if sometimes unspoken, skill among many. David remembers the late Tom Pasley, a former Phelps County sheriff, as a great local painter who even hand-lettered the door of his highway patrol unit when he served as a state trooper.

“A lot of the classic painters made their side money painting signs — (Thomas Hart) Benton for one,” David adds, recalling the junior high art class where he was first introduced to the craft. “It’s always interested me.”

The Intercounty Electric Cooperative member spent a few years learning everything he could about the profession — from the proper materials and tools to how to hold a brush — from other painters before striking out on his own. Over the years he’s honed his skills from dozens of books on the topic and sought out the advice of local friends who are also sign painters.

“I’ve got books from six different sign painting schools. There used to be several right here in the state,” David adds. “It was a trade that they taught. A lot of the cars that were manufactured in the ’50s and ’60s had hand-painted pinstripes on them, and they had to have someone at the factory who knew how to do that.”

Farm machinery, fire engines and billboards, too, often sported some form of hand-painted decoration up until the time David got started in the business during the early 1980s. Around the same time, vinyl signs, which could be printed and installed faster, cheaper and by fewer people, started encroaching on hand-painted business. But according to David, a sawyer at WW Cedar Co. in Vienna by day, his particular skill isn’t in danger of being relegated to the history books.

“A lot of this is starting to come back,” David says. “It’s not completely dead. There are a few sign painting groups I belong to that have well over 3,000 members.”

If paint will stick to it, David’s probably painted it. Whether he’s working on a livestock show sign, mailbox, a milk can, a shotgun or a game-winning basketball, David’s customers trust him to follow his muse. The result is a one-of-a-kind piece they’re proud to display at the local fair or in their home. And the artist still finds something new and exciting every time he sits down to sketch an idea.

“After doing thousands of signs, there’s a little bit of a challenge to come up with something you’ve never done before,” David says. “You don’t want to get in a rut and do everything the same.”

Sources of inspiration from the golden days of handmade signs line the walls of David’s shop. Two snarling beasts from the old Lion’s Club Park insignia and the sign from the Busy Bee laundromat showcase the details that explain their vintage charm; hand-cut and screen-printed porcelain, hand-drawn characters and lettering that predates the font libraries found on today’s computers.

“It’s just kind of got its own look,” David says, pointing at the smiling Busy Bee. “It’s hard to pick it out, but you can look at that and tell it’s hand-painted.”

Ironically, the quickness and convenience that originally led to vinyl’s rise in the sign business has created a niche for the old-fashioned methods. In some cases, it’s easier for a skilled painter like David to accomplish effects on lettering such as highlights or shadowing than it is to print and apply another set of characters from a vinyl roll.

“If you know what you’re doing with paint and a brush, it’s so quick,” David says, “and it doesn’t quite have that clean, sterile look.”

Another irony is that the man who has painted so many signs for other businesses only has done one for himself, and it travels with him wherever he goes on the back of his pickup. He has no ads and rarely posts photos to his company’s Facebook page, but once established a good sign painter like David can stay busy through word of mouth. The list of customers and the signs in progress around the shop — one for a farm in Cole County here, another for the Double LL Country Store in Belle there — prove it. Some of his present-day customers have been with him since the beginning. Multiple generations have called on the services of Davis Signs to draw customers into businesses and eyes to show windows, or to keep dump trucks and over-the-road rigs up to code and looking stylish.

True to his humble nature, David just shakes his head and laughs, amazed his love of painting turned into a second career.

“Signs can be aggravating when there are too many of them, but you’ve got to have them,” he says with a smile. “I don’t think they’re ever going away.”


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