A (Suspish) Fish Story

The popularity of Eugene’s beloved graffiti artist is soaring. Maybe it’s time for the cops to lay off?

The fish swim on concrete walls, train cars and utility boxes, so bright and fun they seem like something a city would pay for, not try to cover over. 

The Suspish Fish, in all its permutations, with its goggle-eyes and undershot jaw, has become a Eugene icon — just Google “Suspish Eugene,” and your computer screen is awash in the seaside blues, light greens and hot pinks of the adorably ugly swimmer, usually accompanied by the tag “Suspish.” 

Better yet, take a walk around town, check out the underpasses and underused walls of our urban areas and look for the art brightening up some of the darker places. Parents search for new Suspish Fish with their kids, folks have gotten Suspish Fish tattoos, and it just makes the day of someone like me when I randomly encounter a Suspish. 

Not everyone sees Suspish — or any graffiti — as art. The Eugene Police Department has an all-volunteer “Huckleberry Patrol” of two-person teams who “travel by bicycle in the midtown area to locate, document and remove and/or paint over graffiti,” according to Melinda McLaughlin, EPD spokesperson. The patrol covers the area from 11th to 15th Avenue and Charnelton to Ferry Street. 

Despite Suspish’s popularity and artististic skills, charges can be filed against graffiti artists, so Suspish’s identity is anonymous in this story, both name and gender.

Eugene is home to any number of city-sanctioned murals, some from the city’s Urban Canvas Project, which brings together artists and businesses to create urban art, and others from the 20x21EUG Mural Project, which sought to create 20 or more world-class outdoor murals in Eugene before the recent World Athletics Championships. The Mural Project features the works of local artists as well as international luminaries such as Blek le Rat. A survey of grants made by the Oregon Arts Commissions shows community mural projects usually get $3,000 to $4,000 in funds, including supplies and stipends. Eugene’s public art manager, Kate Ali, says the 20×21 artist stipend was $3,000 per artist, with the cost of travel, food, materials and, towards the end of the project, lodging, also covered. Some costs were discounted or donated by local businesses.

Blek le Rat is a French graffiti artist. When the city sponsors his work, it’s art. Internationally, artists such as Banksy and Keith Haring are well-known for graffiti art. But when Suspish throws up a colorful fish, it’s still art — but doing the piece can lead to charges of criminal mischief. 

Suspish didn’t know anything about graffiti before getting into it. “I always liked it, but had never done it,” the artist says. “I didn’t start till I was a grown adult.” Suspish was already a talented self-taught artist when the urge to use spray paint hit. There’s an irony, Suspish notes, in painting and creating art for years, but becoming known for a weird little fish. 

Always curious about new mediums, Suspish was drawn to spray paint. “I bought one of every color of Rustoleum,” and practiced on raw plywood in the backyard.

Surprised that a graffiti artist would have a backyard? Suspish is a gainfully employed tax-paying member of the community. While Suspish did experience homelessness as a child in Eugene, “I’ve never been unemployed in my life.” So when people complain about Suspish’s graffiti art, grumbling “Whose taxes pay to clean this up?” Suspish responds: “Mine do.”

When they got their start in graffiti art in late 2019, Suspish was working 80 hours a week, sometimes staying up all night at a graveyard shift job, then starting a second job an hour later. 

The backyard experimentation on plywood didn’t come out well, as Suspish tells it. The paint laid down in all one thickness and in blobs; the unprimed wood sucked it up. “I didn’t know anything about spray paint or graffiti,” Suspish says, and it was harder to learn than it looked.

Aside from one discouraging art class in school, Suspish is self-taught and doesn’t have the urge to take art classes. “I don’t know if I would go to art school,” they muse. “It seems like it would be limiting.” They show me photos on their phone of some of their other work, and it’s hard to understand why the artist known as Suspish hasn’t been asked to officially paint some local murals.

Instead of going official, Suspish has ventured into a variety of artistic mediums, creating fantastic graffiti of fish and tree frogs, Seussian creatures, octopuses, sometimes a skull and, lately, images on tiny canvases and stickers. 

Becoming Suspish

At the end of a long night at work in fall 2019, a customer noticed Suspish drawing a zombie, and the two got to talking about art and spray paint. It was pretty much “happenstance and coincidence,” Suspish says, but the customer said in the short hour between Suspish’s two jobs that he could “show me chill spots to go paint.” That customer was another local graffiti artist known as DEZPHR. 

Suspish started off with some random characters, even Pokémon, using images on their phone for reference. The images were fuzzy and blurry at first, Suspish says. “I had no can-control.” 

DEZPHR would tell them things like, “Get closer to the wall, go faster to avoid drips, one fluid motion, don’t try to put too much detail into a small area.”

Suspish painted the first “Suspish Fish” in February 2020 — as the pandemic was hitting Oregon. In those dark, depressing days, “when I started painting, I had something to look forward to.” 

One thing the pandemic shutdowns gave the artist was time. “I’ve never been unemployed in my life,” Suspish says, but with the pandemic, “I had time to go paint.” And when the 2020 wildfires covered Lane County in smoke and darkness, Suspish was out painting. “It’s dark out there like it’s Christmas night,” Suspish remembers.

Suspish’s fish didn’t just lift the artist’s own depression. The brightly colored fish, frogs and worms cheered other folks up, too. Reddit threads devoted to spotting Suspish art appeared, as did Facebook pages. More recently, the Lane County Fair featured a child’s Suspish Fish art, and local Lego store Brick Builders gave first place to a Suspish Fish in a Lego build contest. Suspish quickly became a local celebrity artist, albeit an anonymous one. 

These days Suspish uses the same Rustoleum paints, “stock tips” — the spray tips the cans come with — to create the art. And Suspish Fish has their own Facebook profile that’s already filled the 5,000 friend limit. While people may speculate on who the “real Suspish” is, the hovering threat of legal repercussions means safety lies in being anonymous.  

I’m your Huckleberry

Start to finish, Suspish can create a fish and tag it in seven minutes. And I believe it — driving in to work one day, I spotted Suspish painting in a freeway underpass. By the time I pulled over, they were gone. 

Speed aside, graffiti isn’t just an art, it’s a culture, and Suspish was learning that, too. 

First, tagging is more about a name and signature — often a scribble but sometimes more — than it is a character. Before Suspish was Suspish, the tag, they were basically just the fish, the character, Suspish says, maybe a “throwie.” 

At this point, Suspish was learning “graffiti is really about letters,” but they say, “characters come more naturally to me.”

Etiquette-wise, Suspish explains, you are not supposed to paint over other people’s work. If you leave some of the older art showing it’s an insult called “capping” or “dissing.” Bad art or bad artists are “toys.” Unknowingly capping another artist is one way to get called a toy. “Biting” is when someone paints someone else’s design.

Suspish does make small but important exceptions on painting over things. They will cover over racist tags or graffiti that makes someone feel threatened, because “I don’t like people in my community not feeling safe.” 

When the powers that be — let’s say the city, county and/or Huckleberry Patrol — paints over the art or a tag, it’s called “buffing.” The buffs are those painted squares, which may or may not match the original color of the wall, covering up the art. According to McLaughlin of EPD, when it comes to downtown businesses and the Huckleberry Patrol covering up graffiti, “The volunteers use paint and supplies donated by local businesses. Businesses can also provide their own matching paint for the volunteers to use.” Businesses can contact the patrol with their graffiti concerns, she says.

The Huckleberry Patrol was established in 2007, and according to a 2008 press release, was named by the Eugene resident who conceived of the program in “a nod to Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, who tricked Huck Finn into painting a fence.”

Unfortunately, Huck Finn is not actually in the famous whitewashing the fence scene. 

McLaughlin says graffiti is photographed and put in a photo file. Curious, I made a public records request for graffiti images from 2020 onward, just to see what art and tags we are covering up. The photos are mainly of small and faded tags and a couple larger tags, but also, strangely enough, paper flyers including one about a found cat and another with a quote from Black feminist scholar bell hooks.

When Suspish first painted the now-characteristic angler fish, DEZPHR said, “That’s your character!” And as he coached Suspish, it was a bit like Fight Club. “Look out!” “You’re too slow!” “It doesn’t have to be that perfect!” “You are not cut out for this!” 

Suspish knew the other artist was right in saying that as a graffiti artist they needed letters and a name. “Letters are what are respected in graffiti.” 

Suspish pondered how highly suspicious it was to do graffiti art and tagging. “Highly suspicious, suspicious, suspish” and there it was: “Suspish fish — Suspish.” 

“Too long!” DEZPHR said.

“You are never going to get into Fight Club,” Suspish thought. 

But Suspish it was. And the name — and art — have become so recognizable that “I can Google myself,” Suspish says. “Which is weird.”

It helps if you search “Suspish Fish,” “Suspish Eugene” or “Eugene graffiti,” because when they chose their name, Suspish was unfamiliar with YouTuber Bailey Sarian, who is known for telling true crime stories while applying makeup and for saying “suspish,” which also appears on merchandise Sarian sells. 

Sarian might be more legal, but locally, Suspish is more famous.

Art and the Law

In addition to signing the fish and other characters with “Suspish,” the artist also started to sign their name in “worm words,” where each character is a brightly colored worm. The colors of Suspish art, often teals and blues, pinks and purples, are what Suspish happened to have on hand, spray paint-wise, when they started. 

Not only does Suspish always purchase their paint, “I don’t litter. I don’t steal,” they say. But also, despite some aspersions cast in online forums, they always make sure to clean up when they are done, and even cleaning up some of the messy sites where they paint, especially when painting in some less traveled areas. 

“A lot of stuff is trashed. I clean up the area, and I leave a fish behind.” 

Homeless folks often gatekeep their spots, under bridges and overpasses, Suspish says, and “they will run people off, but they are OK with Suspish.” 

It’s rumored that the police are less OK with Suspish, and that Eugene police are trying to figure out who the artist is to charge them with crimes, like criminal mischief. That’s why, folks speculate, Suspish fans have been seeing fewer fishes. 

Given that most of Suspish’s art is painted in out-of-the way places and in some cases, like the fish that appeared in July on the Weekly building, is at the request of a home or business owner, and given that Suspish’s art is clearly just that — art — it’s puzzling that the bug-eyed bright fish could ruffle feathers.

McLaughlin of EPD says she doesn’t “know if we have any investigations and if we did, we wouldn’t publicize something for which there hadn’t been any charges.”

But while Suspish doesn’t trust the police, that’s not the point of Suspish’s art. “It’s not a rebellion, not a fuck the system.” Suspish points out that 80 percent of people love the fish, and it brings them joy. Twenty percent don’t like it or don’t understand it.

In terms of county property, chasing down graffiti artists like Suspish doesn’t seem like a priority. “Our facilities staff cleans or paints over the damage. Generally, we don’t have enough information to pursue it further,” Lane County spokesperson Devon Ashbridge says. “It is possible that if we had some kind of evidence we would refer it to the appropriate law enforcement agency for where that piece of county property is located.”

McLaughlin says some midtown businesses have filled out “hold harmless agreements,” allowing the volunteers from the Huckleberry Patrol “to remove any graffiti they find on their property.” 

She says if the Huckleberry volunteers locate graffiti on private property without a harmless agreement, they can approach the business and offer their services, and have the business owner fill out the form.

Eugene Weekly would like the Huckleberry Patrol to know we requested our Suspish Fish and won’t be filling out any forms to get rid of it. 

Objectively, not all graffiti and tagging is pretty or inspires the same love Suspish’s art does. The city of Eugene says its maintenance division removes more than 9,250 tags on public property annually. And city of Eugene spokesperson Cambra Ward Jacobson says the city’s Public Works division spends $60,000 per year in materials and labor for graffiti removal in the public right-of-way

Sometimes walls are not only buffed, but the city has stenciled birds and other figures painted over the graffiti. A city frequently asked questions page says, “Taggers often refer to themselves as ‘street artists’ or ‘writers’ and to their tags as ‘art.’ They don’t view their acts as unlawful, believing that tagging is self-expression.”

When a Suspish is painted over, posts on Reddit and Facebook complain about its loss. “This is ugly bring back the Suspish” was spray painted over one buff on a utility box. 

Under Oregon law, “unlawfully applying graffiti” and  or “unlawfully possessing graffiti implements” can result in a fine or community service. If it rises to the level of community mischief, it “can be a misdemeanor or felony charge, depending on the dollar amount of damage or restoration cost,” the city says. Damage over $1,000 is a felony, while $500 worth of graffiti is a misdemeanor.

In addition to EW’s own recent Suspish graffiti art, new pieces have appeared on a fence not far from Echo Hollow Pool and on the soon-to-come The Crow & The Cart Bar and Food Carts on Blair Boulevard. That Suspish work was soon joined by a three-eyed Mer-Maggie by well-known local muralist Bayne Gardner. Gardner’s work includes a 20×21 mural and a variety of Simpsons pieces, to name a few. Suspish says the collaboration was unplanned.

Back in 2013 the city commissioned mural artists to paint some of the drab electrical boxes around town. In the years since, Eugene, Springfield and places like the Lane Community College campus have embraced murals and other public art. There were mural tours during the recent World Athletics Championships here in Eugene. Why not embrace Suspish?

Those of us wanting a little more Suspish in life can get stickers and tiny canvases emblazoned with Suspish Fish at Brick Builders on Willamette as well as at the Sidepocket Tavern on West 6th. Sometimes, Suspish sends out their “minions” (and please don’t ask the minions who Suspish is because they won’t say) to sell the art at places like Saturday Market. The minions get a cut of the profit, Suspish says. Suspish also plans to launch an online store. 

Finally, since I’m one of those people who gets joy from the goggle-eyed graffiti fish, I’d like to offer a suggestion: There are plenty of boring walls and utility boxes in Lane County that could use a bright little fish. Why don’t the powers that be offer Suspish full amnesty and commission the artist to paint around town? We could all use a little more joyful art in our lives.