What do you get when you mix dirty harbor water, an oddly-shaped paint blotch on a blank wall, and a 12-pack of beer? If you’re artist and contractor Dave Butkus, you end up creating what has become San Pedro’s “official” unofficial mascot, the “Three-Eyed Fish,” which resides on a mural at 38th and Gaffey.
Before we begin, Butkus, 56, would like to dispel some rumors. First, its name is not “Blinky” and it wasn’t inspired by an episode of “The Simpsons” (even though that episode did air a year prior to the mural). Second, he is not responsible for the One-Eyed Octopus mural nearby. Third, even though San Pedrans commonly refer to it as the “Three-Eyed Fish,” it doesn’t have an official name, though Butkus likes to refer to it as the “Harbor Fish” (and we will for the rest of this article). Finally, yes, he owns the copyright.
IT’S ABOUT THE ENVIRONMENT
The way Butkus explains it, the inspiration for a three-eyed fish came from his experience in the harbor water. “Back in the late 1980s, at the end of the wharf where the new Cabrillo Marina is now, there was this big pile of coke fuel. If you ever swam in the harbor for any reason at that time, you knew the water was nasty. So, I figured that anything living in the harbor must’ve had three eyes.”
Cut to September 1991, and Butkus, a Miraleste grad, is driving down Gaffey Street. He notices a fresh blotch of paint on a curved blank wall at 38th Street that the City painted to cover some graffiti. The oddly-shaped blotch, whose edges outlined the graffiti that was underneath it, inspired Butkus. “I drove by that wall and said to my buddy, ‘I’m going to make that into a fish.’”
This is where the 12-pack of beer comes in.
A few days later, Butkus and his then-wife are entertaining their neighbors at their house. While the wives were discussing motherhood (both were pregnant at the time), Butkus, a few beers late into the night, decides to cash in his idea. “I asked my neighbor if he’d drive me out to that wall, I wanted to paint the fish,” he laughs. “So, I cut the tops off a couple of beer cans, poured some black and white paint, grabbed some brushes, and he drove me over. I hopped out of his car and went to town.”
And a San Pedro icon was born.
A LIFE OF ITS OWN
For years, no one knew the identity of the Harbor Fish artist, and Butkus certainly did not want the spotlight on himself. “It was a different time,” he says. “Back then, graffiti was still not very cool. You stayed anonymous to it for a while. I never anticipated it lasting at all, maybe a couple of weeks. I fig-ured the City would paint over it, which they eventually did.”
A few years (and several touch ups over graffiti) after painting the mural, the City painted over it and it reappeared the very next day. “Someone, not me, repainted it again,” says Butkus. “That’s when it seemed to take on a life of its own.”
Bob Milling, a local muralist, is credited with maintaining the mural through the years, though he wasn’t the original preservationist. He is quick to point out that it’s really a community effort. “I’ve been in Point Fermin for 17 years, anytime the mural gets vandalized, myself or a few of my neighbors will repair it,” says Milling. “It’s a simple image, it doesn’t take much time to fix.”
With each passing preservation, the fish has taken on slightly different variations from its original look. Today, the fish rests on a blue oceanic background (neither Milling nor Butkus knows who added that) and is slightly more bulbous than before.
It wasn’t long before the community started to take notice of this new piece of art. In the beginning, a few of Butkus’ friends decided to print some t-shirts and have some items embroidered with his blessing. Soon after, local t-shirt printers were using a variation of the Harbor Fish image on their products and local artisans were putting the fish image on coffee mugs, stickers, and anything else they could sell. Without any copyright enforcement, the image seemed to become de facto public property.
“For 12 years, I kind of just let people do what they want with it. It started appearing on shirts and stuff,” says Butkus. “It was cool, people were embracing it and loving it, but it was still my image being used.”
RECLAIMING HIS ART
In 2004, Butkus decided to protect his creation and received the copyright for the Harbor Fish image. That same year, he also went public in the community, doing an interview in a local publication and attending all the neighborhood councils to introduce himself as the rightful artist of the Harbor Fish.
The road to reclaiming his art hasn’t been easy. He’s had to deal with everything from other artists unsuccessfully filing false copyrights on the image to local businesses and artisans continuing to sell plagiarized merchandise. He’s not looking to rectify the past, but he wants to make sure that his work is protected in the future.
“They had their fun and I’m happy those folks were able to make some money off it. I thank them for keeping it popular, but it’s time to move forward,” says Butkus. “To this date, I haven’t made much on it. Everything I’ve made has mostly gone to lawyer fees.”
The only retail store that carries officially licensed Harbor Fish merchandise is Badfish Clothing Company. Their two locations in San Pedro carry t-shirts, stickers and other items emblazoned with the three-eyed icon. “Joshua [Gar-cia, principal at Badfish] is a standup guy,” says Butkus. “When he got word that I was the artist, he contacted me saying he’d been selling shirts with the Harbor Fish image on it and wanted to make good with me.”
While the Harbor Fish has become San Pedro’s “official” unofficial mascot, its original intention was to poke fun and draw attention to the polluted waters within our harbor. As he takes more control of the legal aspects of his image, Butkus hopes the fish can re-claim that original inspiration and gain notoriety outside of San Pedro’s borders and into other beach cities as a way to promote environmental awareness.
Today, Butkus lives in Long Beach and is a licensed contractor and designer working around the South Bay. He continues to come up with different ideas and ways to promote his Harbor Fish creation and is willing to work with local artisans and businesses to legally sell his copyrighted artwork.
When asked if he’s still shocked that a beer-fueled evening resulted in an iconic local mascot of sorts, be bursts out laughing.
“I never thought it was going to be anything.”