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Colossal Arachnids Menace the Space Needle

Scaredy-cats who find the nerve to ascend the sky-probing Space Needle are in for an unpleasant surprise. Looking down, they'll find that Seattle's signature monument is under attack by arachnids big enough to gobble up the Seahawks' defensive line like a pack of blood-filled Skittles.

The instinctual reaction to these twin monstrosities, which appear to scurry across a roof on appendages thick as young redwoods, is to want to drop a grand piano on them from the Needle's viewing deck. But have no fear, arachnophobes: The worst the mammoth creepy-crawlies can do is serve as America's freakiest scarecrows. (Who's hunting who now, birds!) They're made of paint and a ton of craftsmanship, the product of several weeks of intensive labor by science-artist Marlin Peterson.

Peterson fashioned wood and wire models and put them out in the sun to study their shadows. He then fed this data into a computer to create an interactive digital model, cleaned a carpet of bird crap and feathers off the Armory in the Seattle Center, and got busy with a paint roller. He had to sign a contract with provisos like “no horseplay on the jobsite,” he says, and wore a full body harness to keep from tumbling onto the tracks of the Seattle monorail.

There have been critics. On Peterson's website, a commenter name Brian carps: "What a perfectly rude thing to do. I hope this is set to be painted over, because almost no one coming to the Space Needle wants to take in the view of Seattle and be startled to see giant spiders." But the artist says most folks greet the approaching arachnids, not technically spiders but harvestmen, with amusement or wonder. I asked Peterson to describe his unusual project, and here's what he had to say:

How did this project begin?

I have been building my resume up to do it for some time, then finally got a grant to do it last fall... then had a long time figuring out where I could do it. Initially it was going to be on a vertical wall but I couldn't find any willing building owners. So I then got to thinking about big open spaces, thought about roofs, got on Google Earth, and thought, Hey, people only go up into the Space Needle to look down. So I approached Seattle Center where they had a perfect roof.

Why a daddy longlegs, and not a banana slug or other Pacific Northwest critter?

The trompe-l'oeil effect would be most believable and cool with these arachnids. They are very familiar creatures here so it made sense in that respect. A slug would be awesome... the gooey line behind it would be so cool. I hope to do other creatures in the future, as I am always looking for ideas for places.

I do have a background as a science illustrator – it is my freelance profession – and I studied at the University of California at Santa Cruz's Science Illustration program in 2007-2008. So I do illustrate invertebrates often. The species is called Phalangium opilio. The one in the foreground is the female, and the darker one in the background is the male. They are originally from Europe but have colonized North America, too. We have them everywhere here in Washington.

How long did it take, start to finish?

It took 2.5 weeks marking the lines and painting, and maybe off and on 2 more weeks for doing the models and digital painting – about a month total. 

What was the biggest challenge in making it?

If I made a mistake I could not just paint over the roof with the "roof color," so the lines were very important. And just trusting that I did my math and skewing correctly on the computer so that it would look correct from 600 feet up. I put a lot of work in on the front end so that I was sure.

What have you heard from the public in terms of a reaction? Love it, icked out, confused?

Many people hate spiders, so it's fine when they yell out "Gross! I hate spiders!!" from the Space Needle. I know they aren't referring to my harvestmen, which aren't spiders at all.

By far my favorite reaction, and the one I shot for, is when people argue among themselves if it is a huge sculpture or a painting. When the sun is out at the right angle, I have a hard time telling myself!

Photos used with permission of Marlin Peterson. For more, visit his website.

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John Metcalfe is a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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