A legend in the world of custom-painted cars and motorcycles, Mike Lavallee, owner of Killer Paint Airbrush Studio in Snohomish, is ready to take his artistry out of the garage and into the home.
Lavallee is the inventor of True Fire, a trademarked airbrush-painting technique that makes flames look like real fire, rather than the more stylized version of a flame seen previously on hot rods and muscle cars.
He’s demonstrated his True Fire technique in YouTube videos and in classes he’s taught, both at home and abroad, as well as on TV shows like “Overhaulin’,” “Monster Garage” and “Rides” — shows geared mostly toward men obsessed with cars, trucks and motorcycles.
Within the last 15 years, custom painters around the world have picked up on Lavallee’s True Fire technique and there is now a seemingly endless supply of forums, blogs and YouTube videos on the topic.
“Mike Lavallee made his style effect very, very popular,” says Svee Wheeler, in one such video entitled ‘How to airbrush true fire with water-based paints’. “He pioneered it, really, and there are others that do it as well.”
While the 56-year-old Lavallee’s ultimate goal is to have his own TV show, he said he’d also like to team up with interior designers and decorators to help customize homes.
“I don’t want to be known as just the fire guy,” he said. “I will take it and I will run with it and I will wear it as a badge of honor. But it’s not all that I do.”
He can paint anything, Lavallee said, and he’s developed a technique to etch porcelain, which can’t be sanded, so paint will stick to it.
He’s painted refrigerators, sinks and toilets and he’s even painted urinals for the Rock Wood Fire Pizza restaurants. (“If there’s fire when you pee, it must be Lavallee” states a caption under photos of some of those urinals on convozine.com.)
“I do everything, anything to do with artwork,” Lavallee said. “I can take that old refrigerator that’s in grandma’s basement, rusty, and turn it into something that plays Pink Floyd music and that’s got artwork all over it and custom shelves.”
You might say Lavallee was born to make art. He talks about loving to draw from the time he first picked up paper and crayons around the age of 2.
“Dinosaurs were my thing,” he said.
Later he drew other animals and, encouraged by his high-school English teacher, entered and won national contests.
“And when you’re a kid,” he said, “it’s something like that that will spark somebody who is maybe doing it for fun, to maybe take it a little more seriously and actually know that you could do something with it, you know? And it did that for me.”
He decided that he wanted to study art in college and then paint movie posters. That was back in the days before home computers and Photoshop, he said, when movie posters were hand-painted.
But his father had different ideas and steered him toward Butera School of Art in Boston to learn sign-painting.
“My dad, being a practical Yankee, decided he wanted his son to have a trade,” Lavallee said.
It wasn’t until he visited the school that he realized there was more to sign painting than “No Parking” signs and menus and the like, he said. There was “beautiful artwork” being done with gold leaf and glass and carving, so he agreed to the change of plan.
After graduating from the two-year program, he got a job with a sign company, getting some real “hands-on learning”, he said, in digging holes for signposts, as well as in designing, painting and hand-lettering signs.
He quit after a year and set up shop in his parents’ garage. He was around 20 years old then, he said.
Around that time he learned airbrushing from his father, a taxidermist who used it to paint fish and other things. When Lavallee learned to paint fancy pin-striping and scrollwork designs seen on cars and motorcycles, someone suggested he go ply his trade at a motorcycle rally held annually in Laconia, New Hampshire.
“So I took my little paint kit, I made a banner and I drove my ‘72 Nova up to Laconia and set up shop,” he said.
He made more money in one weekend than he had all month in the sign business, he said. Thus began the next phase of his life, when for nearly two decades he traveled the circuit from Maine to Florida to South Dakota and back.
“I did motorcycle rallies and gained a really good reputation for my work for years and years and years of traveling like a gypsy,” he said.
He was married twice in his 20s, Lavallee said, but neither marriage lasted long.
Then in Indiana, he met a woman from Everett who was in the truck-lettering trade. He followed her back to the Pacific Northwest and she showed him around Washington.
“It was beautiful,” he said. “She showed me the rainforest and I fell in love.”
Not with the woman, as it turns out.
“The relationship didn’t work out, but the Pacific Northwest did,” said Lavellee, who now lives in Lake Stevens.
He opened his shop in Snohomish in 1999, he said.
Around that time he also decided to set up a booth at the Seattle Roadster Show, then held at Qwest Field Event Center. It would prove to be a momentous decision.
The day before the show opened, Lavallee set up and then took a stroll around the venue to check out the cars. That’s when he came upon a black ‘32 Roadster with a man partially beneath it, polishing the underside of the car’s fenders. Lavallee noticed a small scratch in the orange pinstriping
“I can fix that scratch for you,” he said.
“What? What scratch?” the man spluttered.
Lavallee showed him and then returned to fix the scratch early the next morning, settling on a fee of $20, which he figured would pay for his lunch. When the man said he’d have the car owner come over later with the money, Lavallee figured he’d never see the $20. He shrugged and chalked it up to karma.
But hours later, the man did visit Lavallee’s booth, along with the red-headed owner of the car, who handed over the $20.
In a story Lavallee’s told over and over, in interviews and in YouTube videos and on Killer Paint’s website, that’s how he came to meet Chip Foose, of Foose Design, a man well-known for his expertise in the world of cars.
That meeting led to Lavallee flying down to Southern California, at Foose’s expense, to paint his fire on the side of a ‘51 black Chevy pickup truck later featured on the cover and centerfold of Classic Truck Magazine. That led to more projects with Foose and to international exposure for Lavallee’s True Fire at the annual Specialty Equipment Market Association show in Las Vegas.
Next Jesse James of West Coast Choppers contacted him, offering him a spot on the Discovery Channel’s “Monster Garage” show in exchange for Lavallee painting a truck that James later drove in AutoZone commercials. Lavallee also painted his True Fire on motorcycles for James and for singer-songwriter Kid Rock.
Since then, Lavallee’s appeared on more episodes of “Monster Garage”, as well as “Overhaulin’” (now off the air) on the Velocity Channel and TLC’s “Rides.” He’s also appeared on “Miami Ink,” “Rock the Boat,” “Hot Rod TV” and “Evening Magazine.”
He became friends with crab fisherman Phil Harris, one of the captains on the Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch” when he painted Harris’ motorcycle.
After Harris died in 2010 after a stroke at the age of 53, Lavallee painted two motorcycle gas tanks that fit together in the shape of a heart and served as urns for Harris’ ashes.
With one buried in Bothell next to Harris’ mother and the other buried at sea in a crab pot off Dutch Harbor, Alaska — a fisherman’s rendezvous — all Lavallee has left are photographs. Still, it’s clear that project was an act of love.
Looking back, Lavallee marvels at the twists of fate that have so far defined his life, especially the tiny brushstroke needed to fix that scratch in a pinstripe. It measured no more than 1/16 of an inch, he said.
“But that brushstroke changed my life,” he said. “It changed my life and it changed the lives of just about every custom painter on the planet.
“It started the ball rolling for this thing I call True Fire. That changed the custom-paint industry. And now this technique that I came up with and made popular is now an industry standard. And the name True Fire is an industry term.”