Arctic Splash trash: How discarded iced tea became a Philadelphia icon

Kae Lani Palmisano

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Around 41,000 years ago, early humans drew a series of symbols on the walls of caves throughout Europe. Paleoanthropologists consider this the first form of graphic communication and the beginning of written language. Though the meaning of these symbols has been lost over time, one thing is certain: it was the first time humans used symbols to express identity, represent ideas and silently communicate with one another.


It’s stories like this that make me wonder what future researchers will think when they excavate the remains of our civilization. What artifacts will we leave behind? What nuanced meanings will be lost? What symbols will end up defining our lives and the times in which we live?  

I’m fairly certain paleoanthropologists will be perplexed by the array of bizarre artifacts they’ll find in my hometown of Philadelphia. They’ll find a statue of a mythological boxer named Rocky and a cracked bell signifying liberty. But most peculiar of all will be the recurring image of a small white and brown carton with blue letters covered in snow that read “Arctic Splash.”

Arctic Splash trash: How discarded iced tea became a Philadelphia iconPhoto courtesy of Justin Coffin

Arctic Splash is a brand of lemon-flavored iced tea sold in Philadelphia. It is outrageously sweet, more juice than tea, and over the past few decades it has become tightly woven into the tapestry of our local heritage.

It's difficult to pinpoint the exact moment Arctic Splash arrived in Philadelphia, but judging by the 1994 trademark filed by parent company Dean Foods Company, and the collective consciousness of Philly natives, it's safe to estimate the Arctic Splash phenomenon begins in the mid-90s.

Though Arctic Splash is sold everywhere in Philadelphia, it has become the unofficial symbol of one neighborhood: Fishtown. Much of the current hype is based on the fact that if you take a walk through the 19125 zip code you’ll find tons of disposed Arctic Splash cartons in various stages of decay – and it’s become a running joke among locals. “We lived across the street from a bodega, and this person, we will call them the ‘Phantom Splasher,’ would always leave a half-empty carton on our front steps,” explains Justyn Myers, a Philadelphia native who dealt with the Phantom Splasher for two years while living in Fishtown.

Arctic Splash trash: How discarded iced tea became a Philadelphia iconPhoto courtesy of Justin Coffin

But Myers' Phantom Splasher isn’t the only one responsible for the Arctic Splash trash. There is a community full of Phantom Splashers who, once they're done sucking down their lemon iced tea, carelessly discard the cardboard cartons wherever it's convenient – in the streets, on the sidewalk, perched on top of cars and on the front stoops of Fishtown residents, many of whom are new to the gentrifying neighborhood and not accustomed to the habits of locals.   

In 2006, neighbors took to the forum, an online community where they announced block parties, curb alerts and other updates. Under the tag “Arctic Splash Project” users, mostly newcomers, shared photos of abandoned Arctic Splash cartons and informed others where the trash was located, creating a user-generated list that helped locals navigate the littered streets. A community began to form around validating other citizens by letting them know they weren’t the only soldiers fighting the war against the Arctic Splash problem.

But in 2007 there was a shift in the Arctic Splash zeitgeist. A photographer by the username “mcdeeder” joined the forum to announce that they were hanging photos of discarded Arctic Splash cartons at a Fishtown brunch spot called Ida Mae's. The forum exploded with excitement with dozens of commenters expressing their love for the artwork.

Arctic Splash trash: How discarded iced tea became a Philadelphia iconPhoto courtesy of Justin Coffin

I needed to know who “mcdeeder” was and if this photo project was just a joke or something deeper. Ida Mae’s closed last year and every article that referenced the Arctic Splash Project only linked to the old forums and never credited the original artist. But after a bit of research, I found “mcdeeder”. His name is Justin Coffin.  

“I’ve always liked the art on the carton,” says Coffin, who photographed the Arctic Splash trash around 2006 and 2007. “It’s cheerful and kind of naive.” To Coffin, finding the empty cartons of lemon iced tea was exciting. Every photo walk was an expedition to find Arctic Splash trash in its natural habitat. Sometimes they’d be sitting on top of a ballard, those cement poles in parking lots, like a bold statue placed on a pedestal. Other times, the Arctic Splash cartons would be hiding in the bushes, discarded by a litterbug who was trying to be discreet. “I think there's something about the way Philadelphians litter, both the style of it and how much we do it, that says something about us,” says Coffin.

Arctic Splash trash: How discarded iced tea became a Philadelphia iconPhoto courtesy of Photo via Justin Coffin

What started out as a discussion regarding a persistent issue became a way to document this universal struggle.  The Arctic Splash carton went from a convenient way to consume iced tea to a symbol that united a neighborhood, a badge for those who had endured a shared, and often times, frustrating, experience. When Coffin took that point of contention and transformed it into art, it gave Fishtown a new perspective, proving there was still a glimmer of beauty and a hint of charm amidst the trash. Ancient Egyptians had the Ankh, Christians have the Cross and Fishtown now has the Arctic Splash.

Arctic Splash became fully embraced as a neighborhood symbol in 2012 when Interstate Drafthouse created its own signature cocktail called the “Fishtown Iced Tea.” For $7, patrons would be served Arctic Splash with vodka, gin, tequila, rum and Triple Sec, all mixed in the original cardboard carton.  

When it was first introduced, the Fishtown Iced Tea was the kind of cocktail you’d cross the entire city to have, and many Philadelphians did. Because even though Arctic Splash had been adopted as a symbol of Fishtown, it struck a nostalgic nerve with many Philadelphians who grew up in the city during the 1990s. For us, Arctic Splash wasn’t just a drink; it was an integral part of our childhood routine.

“Our school used to give us a pretzel and an Arctic Splash at recess around 10:30 a.m every day,” says Philly native Johnny Zito. During his days as an alter boy, Zito’s route to church involved a stop at the corner store to grab candy and an Arctic Splash. “It was always hot in the church and I just remember chugging that iced tea like it was going out of style,” Zito says. He even remembers using the empty cartons to make bird feeders.

Zito is now the co-owner of a store on East Passyunk Ave. called South Fellini where he and his business partner, Tony Trov, design cheeky apparel that subtly reference subcultures in Philadelphia. One of their most popular items is an enamel pin designed to spoof the iconic Arctic Splash cartons. Zito and Trov are among the many artists who have found inspiration in the cardboard carton, creating T-shirts, bands and even baby one-pieces all sporting the Arctic Splash logo.

The circle of Arctic Splash’s influence continues to grow as others outside of the city begin to recognize the lemon iced tea as a symbol of Philadelphia. Jim Bachor, a traveling artist from Chicago, fills potholes designed to look like trash commonly found in the area. When he visited Philadelphia, it was only natural that his mosaic be that of a carton of Arctic Splash. But his mosaic isn’t in Fishtown – it’s about 3 miles south in Queen Village.

These days, as Fishtown continues its rapid and controversial gentrification, the symbolism of Arctic Splash has taken on new significance. "The people who would drink Arctic Splash have sold their houses to people who never would," says Coffin, who moved to Fishtown as a teenager in the 90s and has witnessed the neighborhood's transformation. "People like it as something ironic rather than actually enjoying it."

Illustrating Coffin's point, this past year, Pizza Boy, a brewery in Central Pennsylvania, approached the Garage, a Fishtown bar, to collaborate on a beer that would celebrate the Fishtown neighborhood.  According to a Billy Penn article, Katie Henry, the bar’s General Manager “tried to think of ridiculous Fishtown stuff.” Thus, Arctic Trash, a limited-edition sour ale with lactose and lemon, was born. “Litter your mind, not the streets” was the beer’s tagline.  It was truly the spirit of Arctic Splash expressed in beer form.

So in a thousand years when they dig up the ancient streets of Philadelphia, though the Arctic Splash litter will have long been decomposed (hopefully), the image of that small carton of lemon ice tea will be a recurring symbol. There will be enough Arctic Splash artifacts left behind to make future scientists ask "was it a powerful elixir? A drink of the gods? A holy wine of their time?” Even now, in present day, it’s hard to tell where the ice tea ends and the symbol begins.


Kae Lani Palmisano

About Kae Lani Palmisano

Kae Lani Palmisano is the Emmy Award-Winning host of WHYY's Check, Please! Philly, a television show that highlights dining throughout the Philadelphia region. She also writes and hosts WHYY’s Delishtory, a digital series exploring the history of food.  As a freelance food and travel writer, she has been published in KitchenAid Stories, Resy, USA TODAY, 10Best, Roads & Kingdoms and more.  

Read more about Kae Lani Palmisano here.

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