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Fire Brand

Mike Lavallee, 1960-2020.

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ON TUESDAY, APRIL 14, Mike Lavallee, 60, passed away from complications of a brain aneurysm, and the sign community lost one of its most prominent and talented artists. I never met Mike, but I worked with him many times. He was a staple in the pages of Signs of the Times. Throughout the ’90s and into the 2000’s, Mike contributed numerous step-by-step articles that revealed his process for creating masterpiece illustrations.

Even as I laid the features out, I thought to myself, “Good luck replicating this project.” You see, Mike was a top 1% draftsperson, a visionary driven by his vast imagination and possessing the skills to turn his outlandish ideas into reality.

He was introduced to the airbrush as a child, watching his taxidermist father work. After graduating high school, Mike attended Butera School of Art in Boston. As a freshman, he began earning money as a sign-painter, and never looked back. Yet, even with his incredible talent, Mike realized that hand-painting hot-rod hoods and motorcycle gas tanks could only get him so far.

Elaine Wallis, principal designer, Signature Sign & Image (Niagara Falls, ON, Canada) remembers a chance encounter with Mike at Niagara Falls. “Mike had a stack of photos that he had just picked up from a one-hour photo lab,” Wallis said. “All of the photos were just pictures of flames. He said, ‘Elaine, I’m gonna paint fire.’ The rest is history.”

Hot rods and hotter flames

Hot rods and hotter flames; a match made in heaven (or somewhere a bit lower and warmer).

And “paint fire” he did. In 1999, Mike opened Killer Paint studio in Snohomish, WA. His work there was so different than anything else that had been done before that it captured attention outside of the sign world. Jesse James of West Coast Customs contacted Mike to customize a motorcycle for musician Kid Rock. After that, his work was regularly featured on TV (Overhaulin’, Miami Ink, Monster Garage), and his artwork became the centerpiece of many Chip Foose designs. Mike’s “True Fire,” as he trademarked it, made an indelible mark in popular culture, a mark that lasts to this day.

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Despite that, he didn’t want to be known only as the “fire guy.” His friends and colleagues at Killer Paint posted on their Facebook page, “Our hope here at Killer Paint is that [Mike] will be remembered not only for his amazing artwork, but for the amazing man many of you knew him to be.”

If you’d like to honor Mike, Killer Paint will be hosting an auction (date and time to be announced, check their website, killerpaint.com, for details) of his work, and a GoFundMe account has been set up in Mike’s name. As for me, I’ll remember Mike as an immensely talented artist who generously shared his gifts with his many admirers. Make no mistake; Mike was a rock star, but he was always working, and seemed happiest with a brush in his hand.

PHOTO GALLERY ( 5 IMAGES)

Jeff Russ is a content studio manager for SmartWork Media and was the senior art director of Signs of the Times from 1996-2021. A graphic designer and illustrator with an interest in sign design and sign history, Jeff documents important, interesting and notable design trends in the sign industry as a contributor to Signs of the Times. He has written dozens of features for Signs, and his column, Design Matters, was published for more than a decade.

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