Below Seattle’s bustling Aurora Bridge lies a towering creature with long, gangly fingers, a single shiny metal eye, and a curtain of stringy hair. For nearly three decades, the hunched figure has remained waist-deep in the ground of the Fremont neighborhood. While one of its hands rests against the floor, the other covers the entirety of a decommissioned Volkswagen Beetle, appearing ready to crush it—or perhaps throw it—at any second.
This is the Fremont Troll, a beloved 18-foot cement sculpture created by a team of four artists, led by sculptor Steve Badanes, and a group of volunteers as part of a city arts competition. The fantastical piece of art has become a popular destination for tourists and locals alike, serving as the backdrop for everything from wedding and prom photos to music videos and movies, including 10 Things I Hate About You.
But it has a bigger impact than just a popular tourist attraction. This troll helped transform a small, but noticeable, eyesore within the neighborhood. The hidden-away location had become a dumping ground for everything from mattresses to needles. Although it’s certainly not immune to the errant spray painter today, its giant, menacing presence has helped infuse life into the enclave while also bringing a virtually endless supply of visitors day and night.
The Fremont Troll was born out of an arts competition in 1989. Seattle had recently started the Neighborhood Matching Fund in an effort to give residents more decision-making power when it came to improvements and projects in their neighborhoods. The Fremont Arts Council received one of those grants for the spot under the Aurora Bridge, and held a design competition for the art installation, decided by a public vote.
Badanes said the idea for the troll came from the Norwegian fairy tale Three Billy Goats Gruff, in which a trio of goats must cross a bridge guarded by a fearsome troll. At a time when real-estate prices were skyrocketing thanks to the Microsoft tech boom, he said the creature and its car, an actual Volkswagen donated after a front-end collision, were also meant as something of an anti-development statement.
“Fremont used to be kind of a funky town full of crafts people and artists. At the time, the whole waterfront was going to be razed and take out all these little boat building shops and art studios and put in Adobe,” said Badanes, referring to a long waterfront commercial development effort by Quadrant that would eventually make a home for Adobe. “The troll was kind of a protest against that.”
The group was given $20,000 for the project, although it was more like $15,000 after insurance and fees, and construction took about three months. The troll was made from a combination of rebar steel, wire and ferrocement—extremely strong cement typically used in boat building. In the original piece, the Volkswagen held a time capsule, with a plaster bust of Elvis Presley and a friend’s ashes. Badanes, along with artists Will Martin, Ross Whitehead, and Donna Walter, worked sometimes seven days a week on the project, and dozens of volunteers came by most weekends to help.
In the years since the troll was completed, it regularly receives a fresh coat of cement to cover up graffiti. And when vandals broke into the car and stole the Elvis Presley bust, members of the community filled it with concrete to keep others from doing the same. But overall, the popular piece and the many visitors it attracts to that spot under the bridge showcases the impact public art can have on helping to positively transform parts of a city.
“The piece improved an area of chronic disrepair and dumping of trash,” said Kirby Laney, the writer behind the Fremocentrist, a neighborhood news website. “It solved a huge problem of urban decay, in a fun and entertaining manner, giving the neighbors around the area a solution as well as a permanent enhancement.”
Badanes, who has spent years producing a wide array of public art, said he is very pleased with this project and the response it has received. He said he thinks it likely has had the most visitors of any of his works.
“I’m happy to have built something like that,” he said. “If that’s the only thing you did in your life, that might be enough. It’s made a lot of people happy.”