Paint the town

How Butter and Salmon keep rising to profilic heights in the street art game

Art like this from Butter and Salmon continues to pop up more and more all over the city. However, it’s the anonymity in these designs that make them extra appealing. | Image provided

You’ve seen them everywhere, even if you think you may have missed it. 

From lost CDs to power outage warnings, Butter and Salmon’s street art is constantly catching eyes. 

When they began with simple sock puppet murals, spouting friendly advice like “drive slow homie” and “drink your milk,” there was no telling the lengths they would go. As the birthplace of graffiti, Philadelphia is an ever-changing hub of street art in which Butter and Salmon is the main star. They find their way into every nook the city has to offer and have become so prolific that it feels like their work has just always been around, a part of the city,says Eric Dale, local freelancer and Streets Dept contributor. 

Some of their most popular works are the posters asking “Have You Seen My These CDs?” often found in West Philly. The fliers pull people in with their illusion of legitimacy, and it’s only after one reads about the $20,000 reward that they begin to understand it’s a joke. A range of callback numbers has been listed over the years, and more curious citizens have followed through for hilarious results. One calls Amoeba Music, a vinyl shop based in Los Angeles, which claims to have never even heard of the group. Another number would call a college radio station that had a particularly hard time as every call forcibly interrupted its broadcast. Clearly, Butter and Salmon have a flair for disruption.

Pick up a copy of our March 19 issue and you can clip out a piece of Butter and Salmon art that looks a little something like this. | Image: Eric Dale

If it isn’t obvious by now, their art tends to mimic various types of advertisements: A playbill announces the release of “Cheep Tattoos.” Wheatpastes and stickers prepare us for an upcoming, or long past (2008), World Tour. Another generates hype for their head-to-head “World HeavyWeight Championship Fight” with Kanye West. A particular favorite of mine sells “Used Coffin Rentals for as low as $20,000,” to which I say, at least you know what you’re getting into.

If you’ve noticed a theme, you’re not alone. The $20,000 has become a shorthand tag and another absurd staple of their art. Local legend says Butter and Salmon joked that if they could sell just one piece of their work, any piece, for $20,000, it would all pay off. It may have started in jest, but the price tag stuck. Now you find it hidden in obscure places, such as restaurant bathroom mirrors, laundromat vending machines, and the backs of moving vans.

The touch and go nature of street art requires tact from its participants. Yet, even in an art form known for its anonymity, Butter and Salmon takes the cake. The closest thing to a face that’s been shown would be their iconic squiggly (self?) portrait featuring a long nose, sunken eyes and unkempt mustache. But who’s to say what the artist or artists really look like? They’ve never been interviewed, have a limited social media presence, and have made no public appearances in relation to their art. 

Simple internet searches lead to a Bandcamp page, home to some surprisingly chill beats with albums such as “Bodacious Butter,” “Every Time, No Matter The Time” and “Theme From A Dream.” Their Twitter account is largely inactive apart from a few 2012 messages and a recent video titled “I thought this Jawn was a shoe” that I highly recommend. Many believe their Instagram page to be abandoned, as @butterandsalmon is home to only a single photo of the Chinatown Gate. However, true to form, they’ve simply gone with something less than obvious to throw us off their trail – only the most dedicated of fans have a chance of tracking them down. Their ever-present facelessness creates a sense that Butter and Salmon could be any one of us, or perhaps even all of us.

Perhaps the mystique of Butter and Salmon is that the art isn’t for the sake of hype. B&S have very little by way of a social media presence though the Instagram page @butterandsalmonspotters has a robust following. | Image: Eric Dale

In fact, they very well could be. The availability of stickers means anyone with a sharpie and something to say can join in. Words and images can be shared without censure between those living in and passing through spaces. With a medium accessible to just about everyone, many artists use the streets as a venue “to display art without having to go through the traditional gallery scene,” says Dale. For better or worse, the city has become an interactive message board where people can express themselves, share their body of work and change the urban landscape around them. However, not everyone sees this freedom of form as a positive thing…

Some do not appreciate the sticky additions to our streets or the massive names scrawled across rooftops. In recent years, Philadelphia has cited it as vandalism and taken increased steps to remove street art, especially in Center City. During his time contributing to Streets Dept, Dale has noticed that “the buff has gotten more aggressive. The scraping, and painting, and the silver spray paint on the backs of signs…” 

It’s gotten to the point where some artists won’t even bother getting up downtown because of how swiftly their art will be removed. Despite the city cracking down, the buff hasn’t stopped people from reaching new, literal heights to spread their messages. It certainly hasn’t been slowing Butter and Salmon down either, as they are still constantly creating and releasing new designs onto every inch of the city. They’ve even commented directly on erasure efforts in the past with a piece titled “Gray Skies,” featuring a signature sock puppet saying, “This is much better than a gray wall … but since it is ‘graffiti’ someone will paint it gray.”

For those of us who spend our time in the streets, our urban artists bring us back to a city that is a beautiful, dynamic landscape we can interact with at will. Butter and Salmon have successfully turned a hobby into a city-wide phenomenon. Like Gritty, cheesesteaks, or the word “jawn,” they are a treasure specific to Philadelphia. Their consistent absurdity reminds us it’s not all gentrification and SEPTA delays out here. Sometimes all we need is a good laugh and the encouragement to speak our own message, no matter how quirky it seems. It can’t be more ridiculous than feeding butter to salmon…

If you weren’t already, keep your head up and an eye out. You’ll start seeing them everywhere.