Seattle is a city full of icons. Visitors stop to gawk at the Space Needle. They marvel as Pike Place Market fishmongers blithely toss a fresh salmon to one another as the crowd cheers them on. And they trek to a dead end street in the Fremont neighborhood to pay homage to a homely gray cement sculpture.
This is the Fremont Troll, and he's been a hulking presence under Highway 99 for the past 23 years. Co-creator Steve Badanes, a University of Washington architecture professor, and two of his students submitted the idea for the troll in 1990. The Fremont Arts Council was holding a contest to create an artwork for this street end. A panel of judges would pick three finalists, then the public would vote at a booth at that year's Fremont Solstice Festival.
Badanes notes that initially, the Troll didn't make the cut. "But maybe the judges felt sorry for us, they decided to throw in our project." It won the public vote by a landslide.
Funded by a city of Seattle Department of Neighborhood's Matching Grant and built in part by community volunteers, the gray cement bust of a troll is made of chicken wire covered by ferrocement. The Troll clutches a real Volkswagen Beetle in his right hand, something Badanes says was a protest against the rapid development Seattle was undergoing at the time. "Originally, the car had California plates," he says. It was a dig at the influx of Californians who were flooding into the city.
When the sculpture was completed, local art critics derided it as kitsch. It's what you get when you put art out to a popular vote, they sniffed. But the public has loved the Fremont Troll from the start. Bus loads of tourists from all over the world stop to shoot photos. "One couple even got married at the Troll," Badanes says. "I found it on the Internet."
Badanes has also found numerous instances of copyright infringement. He's successfully blocked commercial enterprises from using the Troll's image for marketing purposes, although he's happy to let nonprofit groups benefit from the Troll, if they ask permission first.
The University of Washington architecture professor has an international reputation for his design work. He's part of a collective called Jersey Devil that designs avant-garde buildings. But Badanes says he's sure his lasting legacy will be the Fremont Troll.
"When I'm old, I'm going to set up a booth here," he laughs. "I'll sign t-shirts and sell memorabilia."
Given the crowd on the day we talked, he's sure to rake in the cash.