Chasing ‘Butter and Salmon’: Elusive street artists are like Philly’s own Banksy

The group (or person?) creates visual art, music and social commentary.

Butter and Salmon album cover; Butter and Salmon sidewalk art

Butter and Salmon album cover; Butter and Salmon sidewalk art

YouTube / Twitter
michaelawinberg-square-crop-feb2018

Maintaining anonymity is pretty standard for modern street artists, but Butter and Salmon have almost reached Banksy levels in under-the-radar creativity.

So who is Butter and Salmon? Good question.

You might have seen the name. It’s behind the gloved-snake creature artwork all over city sidewalks, mentioned on weird fliers offering $20,000 for old CDs, and emblazoned on those tiny stickers posted in dozens of Philly’s nooks and crannies.

The artist(s?) surfaced on social media almost six years ago. Since then, they’ve been persistently and unwaveringly anonymous. Online, they post cryptic messages and claim random locations from California all the way to Japan. IRL, there’s artwork that pops up around various cities, plus those flyers, which have been seen across the country.

They’re so shrouded in mystery that even Philadelphia’s resident street art expert Conrad Benner can’t pin them down.

“They famously don’t want to be interviewed and are completely anonymous,” Benner told Billy Penn. “I’ve literally never been in touch with them.”

There is a phone number on the posters offering money for lost albums — but if you call them, they lead to college radio stations, public libraries and night clubs.

“Butter and Salmon?” said a student at Stanford’s KZSU when Billy Penn called one of the numbers this week. “I don’t know them offhand. And I’m a DJ on the air, so I need to pick my next song.”

One thing is clear about the elusive Butter and Salmon: they’re creative professional trolls.

Wheatpaste and stickers

Though their little-followed Twitter account dates back to 2012, and places them in Tokyo, Butter and Salmon seem to have gotten their start in Philly around 2014 — that’s when their signature sock-puppet-style designs started swirling around local social media.

Benner caught wind and started posting the work on his Streets Dept blog. “Next time you’re taking the El from Girard to Spring Garden be sure to look out for Butter And Salmon saying ‘Hi,'” Benner wrote in December 2014.

Butter and Salmon’s Instagram offers even fewer clues. Started in 2015, the account has only 55 followers and just one post, of the welcome gate in Philly’s Chinatown. The link in the bio goes to one of their videos called “The Man Who Never Killed Himself.” It’s part of a YouTube channel that dates all the way back to 2012.

Butter and Salmon has also gotten into wheatpaste-type productions, using collage as a medium to comment on modern culture and commercialism.

Some of those works are available for sale as prints on their Society6 online store. There’s “Lucy the Elephant,” a cigarette and ice cream beach scene ostensibly set in Margate, and “the kosBy collection,” an image of Bill Cosby with an alligator and strongman arguing out the top of the disgraced comedian’s head.

Other can’t-miss crafts: a flyer mimicking heavyweight boxing promotions but presented by a record company, hilarious videos like the bird that looked like a shoe, and tiny stickers that have been posted all over the city — even inside bars and restaurants.

There’s music, too

This artist does not appear to stick exclusively to visual art.

Butter and Salmon has a bandcamp page with multiple albums, plus electronica music on Spotify, and that YouTube channel, where early videos feature songs with “Butter and Salmon” in the titles and lyrics.

The group made perhaps their biggest splash in 2015, when they started posting “MISSING” fliers offering $20,000 for lost Butter and Salmon CDs. These fliers have been noticed by Philadelphians consistently — even as recently as last year.

“Lost three Butter And Salmon CDs from my prized Butter And Salmon archive,” one flier reads. “I am looking for ‘Bodacious Butter,’ ‘Butter The Salmon,’ and ‘Butter With A Side of Salmon.’ Please call with any information.”

That number you’re supposed to call? You know, to return the CDs? Well that’ll take you straight to an independent music store in California.

Where are they? Philly, probably

Butter and Salmon artworks aren’t totally exclusive to Philadelphia. They’ve shown up in New York and San Francisco, too. The bandcamp page says the group is located in Yuba City, California, while their Twitter page calls home Tokyo, Japan.

Searching for clues via the handfuls of fliers the artist has posted over the past half-decade, each one offered a different phone number — all basically bogus dead-ends.

There’s the one from July 2019, which connects you to the Cincinnati Public Library. Answering the phone, a staffer named Tina told Billy Penn she had never heard of Butter and Salmon, and she had never received any calls about them before.

Another flier, found in February, directed calls to the in-studio line at Stanford’s college radio station KZSU. That means when you call, you conveniently interrupt an on-air host as they’re actively spinning tunes.

Similar tale from KVMR, a Nevada City radio station called out in a September 2018 Butter and Salmon flier.

“I’m not able to tell you right now,” answered a busy DJ. Click.

Clearly, Butter and Salmon are in no rush to be found. Benner said among public artists, that’s mostly normal.

“There’s little info, but that’s the point of a lot of art,” Benner said. “You bring to it what you bring to it.”

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Arts