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This 12-foot tall steel octopus now greets visitors to downtown Tacoma

The sea monster sightings have been confirmed.

On Monday morning, a 12-foot tall steel octopus erupted from the earth at South Tacoma Way and Pacific Avenue in Tacoma.

“Gertie’s Ghost” is the city’s newest public art. It took just a few hours to install the 10 pieces that make up the artwork. It covers a grassy embankment near Sound Transit’s railroad bridge.

The 40,000-pound sculpture was conceived and built by two Oakland, California-based large scale installation artists, Sean Orlando and Dave Shulman.

The two artists are eager to see how the public reacts to it.

“You never really quite know,” Orlando said. “We always say we’d like people to love it, obviously. But we wouldn’t mind it if they hated it. As long as they have a strong emotion about it. That’s why we make art.”

The inspiration for the multi-tentacled beast came from the history of Tacoma.

The artists were aware of the first Narrows Bridge’s — Galloping Gertie — famous 1940 plunge into the depths of Puget Sound long before they made a research trip to Tacoma in 2013.

The pair found parallels between Tacoma and Oakland: A large and active port, a history of railroading and deep industrial roots.

They were also intrigued by Tacoma’s lore.

“We were enamored with the story of the giant octopus that lives in the wreckage of the bridge,” Shulman said. “We kind of fused all of those things together to try and build something that was evocative of an old railroad trestle but had the tapering lines and organic curves of an octopus’s tentacles.”

The sculpture is made from Corten steel. It will rust to an orange patina that will complement the historic brick buildings beyond it, Shulman said.

The pieces were fabricated and trucked from Oakland. The largest of the tentacles just made it under freeway height limits.

Orlando and Schulman were paid $250,000 for the work.

Funding for “Gertie” came from Sound Transit. The regional transportation agency sets aside 1 percent of its construction budget for art.

Before “Gertie” rose from the minds of Shulman and Orlando, the plan was to have a large scale work of art near the railroad bridge to mark the gateway to downtown Tacoma, said Sound Transit’s art program manager, Barbara Luecke.

It’s common for communities to want some sort of gateway art when working with Sound Transit, Luecke said.

“This time it really worked out as a gateway because there’s a real logic to going under that portal of the new track into downtown Tacoma,” she said.

The California artists were chosen based on their portfolio of large-scale installation pieces. The final decision was made by a panel of local citizens assembled by the city’s arts and culture office.

“Tacomans chose the California artists,” said Amy McBride, the city’s arts administrator.

Luecke acknowledged that there was a strong sentiment to hire a local artist for the project.

Because Sound Transit is in part a federally funded agency, it follows guidelines that open art projects to artists anywhere in the United States.

“If we only hired local artists, it doesn’t work in their favor if they want to work out of town,” Luecke said.

The installation marks a milestone for a section of Sound Transit’s route through the city that was mired in controversy and delays for years.

Sound Transit and citizens and city officials spent years discussing the design of the Pacific Avenue bridge and underpass — and if there should even be one — and other features of the line through the Tacoma Dome area.

This isn’t the first Sound Transit sculpture in the area. In 2013, Tacoma artist Diane Hansen installed her “Lock – On Tacoma” sculpture one block to the east on a pedestrian underpass.

“Gertie’s Ghost” currently has a fence around it, awaiting the installation of landscaping.

The next public art associated with the Sounder line will be placed at the Freighthouse Square station platform and will be developed in partnership with the Puyallup Tribe of Indians.

Art also will be incorporated into the new seven stations and power stations on the street car extension to the Hilltop.

Tacoma isn’t the first city to have a monster-sized creature as its welcoming gesture.

At one end of its downtown, Tucson, Arizona has a pedestrian overpass that resembles a giant rattlesnake.

Craig Sailor has worked for The News Tribune for 20 years as a reporter, editor and photographer. He previously worked at The Olympian and at other newspapers in Nevada and California.
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