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Honest Ed's sign artist, Wayne Reuben goes through some of his past work, at his home in Toronto, on Thurs., April 2, 2020. Mr Reuben says he first became aware of the pandemic posters when people who used to work at the store got in touch.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

The posters popping up around downtown Toronto have an inspirational message and a jaunty motif harking back to Honest Ed’s. There’s just one problem, says a Scarborough man who spent decades painting signs for the legendary retailer: The artist ripped off his signature font.

Wayne Reuben says he first became aware of the pandemic posters – which proclaim “We’re all in this together!” – when people who used to work at the store got in touch. But he didn’t know what they were talking about until he saw the poster in the news.

“I was shocked,” he said. “You know, have some respect for other people’s artwork, because I consider it artwork. He’s taking my artwork and using it to his own means. Whether it’s copyright or not, it’s just not fair that he’s doing this.”

He wants an apology, at a minimum, and is considering his legal options.

Mr. Reuben worked at Honest Ed’s for two stints, starting in the 1960s and then again in 1995. He was one of a stable of in-house painters, as many as seven at one point, who over the decades churned out thousands of colourful, quirky signs known for their bad puns.

The posters he’s upset about were made last month by a Torontonian who creates art under the name Dreeem. In an interview in late March, Dreeem described crafting the poster by photographing an old Honest Ed’s sign, salvaged during a store-closing party, and rearranging the letters. The artist did not respond by press-time Thursday to requests for comment.

In a subsequent email exchange after the publication of this article, the artist described being “bummed that they’re bummed” and called the situation “a silly mess.”

“I had an idea for a poster to lift Toronto’s spirits in this crisis and I thought it would make people smile if it looked like an Honest Ed’s sign,” wrote Dreeem, who uses the pronoun ‘they.’ “I couldn’t predict anyone involved with Honest Ed’s would feel like I was taking something from them with that homage.”

They said that they didn’t know much about copyright law and that they had stopped offering their posters for sale.

Spurred into action when he saw the poster, Mr. Reuben has painted a couple of motivational signs of his own.

One of them – urging people to remember the importance of keeping physical distance – will be sold in collaboration with the Parkdale Community Food Bank, which is facing a major increase in demand during the pandemic.

“The [Honest Ed’s] signs have always been really a part of Toronto and I think having him be part of the food bank is a huge thing,” said David White, who sits on the board of the downtown organization.

“It’s important to create that feel of human interaction. It might not have to be physical but it can at least be spiritual and visual.”

The signs will be $250, with the sticker price split between Mr. Reuben and the food bank. This is much more expensive than the posters crafted under the name Dreeem, which are being offered online as a free download or as a printed version starting at $16. Mr. Reuben noted that at his price, the buyer gets a hand-painted, signed piece instead of a print that he says is a knock-off of his work.

Through his daughter, Niki Reuben, a former police officer in the fraud department, the family is also trying to get Shopify to de-list the merchandise being sold by Dreeem. They noted the artist has pledged to give the proceeds from the posters to a pandemic-relief fund but does not appear to have made the same promise about other merchandise carrying the same slogan.

Mr. Reuben acknowledged that the question of ownership of the font is murky. He was employed by a now-gone private retailer and made the signs on its behalf. But he argued that he retains some rights as the creator of the style of lettering.

Asked how he can be so sure the work being copied was his, he laughed.

“If you’re painting a picture and you have a style of painting, you know your style of painting,” Mr. Reuben said. “I know my lettering. I can make a sign and nobody else can copy my style exactly.”

Niki Reuben also noted what she called her father’s signature flourish: a graphic featuring a drop and a star. The image is part of both signs he painted recently.

In late March, The Globe and Mail asked Dreeem to forward a copy of the original sign from which they copied the letters for their poster. The image they provided, which The Globe did not publish or share, is of a sign warning customers not to block an emergency exit. Beside the words are a graphic of a drop and a star.

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