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Joey Salamon’s Vibrant Paint Palette Is Spreading Queer Joy All Over Michigan

The artists on why he loves Detroit and his connection to Bobcat Bonnie's

Sarah Bricker Hunt

It’s a challenge to reconcile Joey Salamon’s exuberant art style — which favors primary colors, midcentury modern lines and bright, boisterously cheerful rainbows — with the quiet, friendly everyman on the other side of Zoom. He seems to possess endless chill, except when he instantly flips to proud dad mode while talking about his dog, a boxer named Yoshi. He’s “the cutest,” according to Salamon (a quick flip through his Instagram @joeysalamon confirms this assessment). “My little dude” one Yoshi post reads.

“I like nice, relaxed, easy things,” Salamon recently told Pride Source from Palm Springs, California, where he’s been working on a new mural for Blackbook Bar. “I like the idea of everyone always feeling relaxed and when it’s not hyper competitive; I hate when things are just, like, too showy.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the artist grew up in a small, unpretentious Michigan city (Midland, west of Bay City). He was ready to see more of the world, though, after graduating from Grand Valley State University near Grand Rapids in 2010, so he hit the road. Hard.

“For five years or so after that, I bounced around a lot,” he says. “I moved to a tiny island in Hawaii for a little bit [Molokai] for maybe a year. And then, a couple of months down in Miami, where I apprenticed with Jen Stark, an artist I still absolutely look up to. After that, I moved to Chicago for almost two years. And then, after that, I briefly lived in basically a hippie commune in Virginia [Acorn Intentional Community]. Then it was Detroit.”

Why Detroit? Salamon says the art scene is super innovative and that he simply loves the culture. “Honestly, it’s just a good space for doing cool stuff,” he explains. “It was always the end goal that I’d get there after I got all my bouncing around done.”

Salamon assures me that he’s “totally fine” to do our interview at the end of a work day at the Palm Springs mural site, but that it was a long day — most mural days are. Between these projects, he says, he needs recovery time. “They take a lot out of you physically and mentally, and as the months go on, it becomes even more imperative to stay on top of your health and rest.” Lately, he’s come to appreciate the off-mural season as a chance to recharge.

Salamon, though, was no stranger to hard work before his current job. He spent several years in the newspaper industry, laying out pages and putting his graphic design skills to use. Before that, he served tables and at one point even worked as a banker. “I actively use learned skills from those jobs in my art career to this day, and I am better at what I do because of it,” he says.

Salamon has come a long way since waiting tables, but he has stayed firmly grounded, even as the pile of accolades and his list of clients — some of them globally significant — keep growing. So far he’s avoided the pitfalls so many fall into when they make it big.

Still, skimming the painter’s impressive, lengthy list of clients might leave you with a certain impression: He’s got to be one of those pretentious art types who “casually” name-drops clients and big projects, right?

Nope. Salamon lets his art speak for itself. In many cases, that art feels bigger than life — think murals painted on top of surface streets stretching down city blocks for hundreds of feet and others that engulf the sides of structures several stories tall.

If he did feel like waving his own banner, he’d have a lot to talk about, including how much he’s achieved since graduating from Grand Valley State in 2010 with an art and design degree. And about the breadth of his clientele, which includes major corporations like Meta and Microsoft, prominent breweries, bands and musicians like Matisyahu and The War on Drugs, and music festivals and cities across the country. About how he’s routinely featured in the media or how his interior design work has appeared on the Food Network. About the overwhelmingly positive reviews his work has earned, too, especially the murals, which are often described by observers with terms like “joyful” and “dazzling.”

In warmer months, you’re apt to find the artist crouched on the ground or perched atop scaffolding, crafting distinctly Joey Salamon creations that brighten up crumbling infrastructure or turn the cold steel of a shipping container into a rainbow-imbued shrine to queerness, like a mural in remote Thompsonville, “UP North Pride,” commissioned by Iron Fish Distillery.

Each mural is its own thing, but Salamon’s public art often focuses on unique interpretations of the traditional Pride flag, which he says represents a welcoming place, but the rainbow riffs are just one sign he has abundant love for the queer community. It’s also apparent in the way he’s chosen to create public monuments to Pride in rural places, where queer folks are less likely to feel comfortable, and in urban communities, where a little brightly colored paint can inspire hope and positivity amidst the hustle and bustle of daily life.

“Stylistically speaking, my goal is to always try new things in my work while keeping the energy the same throughout. I always want people to be able to see a work of mine and know it’s mine, even though stylistically, I am always evolving,” he says.

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A few weeks ago, Salamon cut the ribbon on “Polychromatic Super You” in Ferndale. The mural, commissioned by JARS Cannabis and HYPE Cannabis, is part of the Smoke with Pride campaign and benefits LGBTQ+ support organization Ruth Ellis Center.

The perennially busy artist is gratified about his success, but he recognizes it hasn’t just been dumb luck. “It’s great to look back at all the hard work getting to this point, and how it is now all working and paying off,” he says.

More often than not, new projects come his way because his existing work resonates with a style and message that connects with potential new clients. Most of the projects he’s pitched make sense for him at this point in his career. “Very rarely will I be asked about something that is not something I do, like portraits, for example,” he says. “When that happens, I politely decline and offer the names of artists that would be more appropriate.”

When Salamon isn’t pouring himself bodily into art projects, he might be found spending time with his partner of eight years, Matt Buskard. Salamon talks about Buskard as affectionately as he does his canine companion Yoshi. “We both moved to Detroit within a month of each other,” he says. “He moved to Detroit because he had a dream of opening up his restaurant, and he wanted to do all these things. He had all these dreams,” he says. “And I came to Detroit to really dig in on my art career and pursue that. And so, we kind of got to do both of our dreams together and help each other on the way.”

Buskard’s restaurant dream blossomed into Bobcat Bonnie’s, a concept that has spread across lower Michigan in places like Detroit’s Corktown and Ypsilanti — and soon, to Toledo. Inside each of the six locations, which feature events like drag brunches and bingo, Salamon’s trademark positivity and artistic aesthetic is everywhere, from mural work to framed fine art pieces to interior design touches.

Buskard tackles the business and management side. “We kind of balance each other really well,” Salamon notes. “Things like operations, I know nothing about, but clearly he does it well. He’ll sometimes ask me questions or for my opinion, but at the end of the day, I’m always like, ‘Honestly, you know what you’re doing. Go with your gut.’”

When the couple manages to find downtime, they spend it with friends, travel to places near and far, or head up north to their cabin. In recent months, Salamon has been building up a new side business, too: selling vintage clothing, furniture, vinyl, art and other items inside Detroit’s iconic Eastern Market. He calls the venture Hypersonic Vintage (@vintageeasternmarket) “It brings me a lot of joy,” he says. “It’s something I can see myself always doing.”

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A post shared by Hypersonic Vintage (@hypersonicvintage)

Salamon has been creating art for as long as he can remember, and he plans to keep doing it for as long as it keeps stimulating his brain. “I enjoy the ride of not knowing exactly where it’s all going. It keeps it fun,” he says. “The potential in creating is limitless.”

Visit joeysalamon.art to view a gallery of Salamon’s work. 

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