Our Mermaid Craze / Mermaid City: Why Merfolk Came to Norfolk

Picture by Annette Batista Day. 

In the United States of America, cities long for rhetoric to attract people as shoppers, tourists, job creators, homeowners, and renters.1 Slogans, nicknames, and symbols create vibes but do they reflect vibes that already exist or do they promote a virtual reality?

Norfolk, Virginia’s symbol is the mermaid and this essay seeks to understand why. Norfolk is a port city situated on the southeastern coast of Virginia. It is home to major military operations that date back to colonial times and the American Revolutionary War. Today, it is a city reconciling with issues that plague many cities across the United States like adequate housing and transportation infrastructure. Norfolk’s economy like most of its surrounding region, depends on U.S. military engagement abroad. The mascots of Norfolk’s hockey team, the Admirals, and two university’s mascots—Norfolk State University, Spartans and Old Dominion University, Monarchs—point to an austerity that the city attempted to avoid when it gradually adopted the mermaid as its symbol. The city’s baseball team, Norfolk Tides, has a nickname more closely aligned with the light-hearted vibe civic officials chose to market Norfolk, Virginia. Norfolk civic leaders brought a national and international fiber-glass art trend to the city in 1999 and chose mermaids as the figure to shape the fiber-glass installations that are still on display.

Rather than rest in the appeal of mermaids, perhaps an investigation behind its meaning is due. Norfolk’s mermaids provide ample opportunities for selfies and the project engages artists in public art while also challenging those unsettled with its randomness to think about the roles of business leaders, citizens, and elected city officials play in the making of what Patricia Phillips calls “the commons—the physical configuration and mental landscape of American public life.”2

There are coastal cities bordering oceans, lakes, and rivers around the United States that could have adopted the mermaid due to maritime geography. Proximity to water is not unique for a city so what about the mermaid attracted business leaders in 1999 when they agreed to “Mermaids on Parade” and later the mermaid as the mascot for Norfolk? Besides its coastline, what prompted the nickname of “Mermaid City?” With a periscope on deck, this essay investigates the enigma of Norfolk’s merfolk.

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The Century Comes Floating In: On Parade

“Mermaids on Parade” launched with the beginning of the 21st century. Like the uncanny sound of early dial-up internet connecting to servers,3 this century’s arrival was marked by the advent of perplexing things. Street installations of fiber-glass creatures across taxonomies began in 1999 with Chicago’s “Cows on Parade.” One Windy City businessman got the idea after visiting Zurich the year before he brought the art project to the Midwest.4 These two projects sparked migrations of fiber-glass creatures to cities across the world.5 Norfolk, Virginia chose mermaids to tour the town and more than twenty years later, the merfolk remain. Bess Decker conceived the idea of “Mermaids on Parade” after visiting Chicago. Her husband, well-known local attorney, Peter Decker Jr. (1935-2012), introduced the idea to power players in the city in 1999 and ever since then, Norfolk’s merfolk have dotted the city from sidewalks, to boardwalks, businesses, libraries, schools, medians, atriums, stadiums, hospitals, and walls. Most of the mermaids were casted by Kevin Gallup or Georgia Mason and personalized by local artists including children and professional artists. The mermaids were later auctioned off with the bidding’s base at $2,000 dollars. The fall 2000 event was billed “Mermaids on Parade Masquerade for the Arts.”6 Proximity to power is helpful when advancing ideas. Norfolk’s mermaids, in some ways like the City Beautification movement a century prior, conceived the city as an attraction, a location in need of a selling point.7 Norfolk’s business community agreed to the idea of mermaids as a magnetic force strong enough to attract people to the city. Select Norfolk government and business leaders decided that the image communicated a message that could increase revenue and shape city identity.8 Identity however, is shaped more than by the accessories that have been affixed to a person’s clothing or to a city’s streetscapes or building interiors.

Fiber-glass art dramatically departed from the previous century’s arrival where cities hosted world fairs to express their wonder to the world.9 Large international exhibitions like the 1893 World Columbian Exposition or the 1907 Jamestown Exposition did not emerge at the millennium with the same fascination nor scale as it did for the previous turn-of-the century. Despite its name, the 1907 Jamestown Exposition was held in Norfolk rather than on the eponymous island because Jamestown was not developed yet. Norfolk won the bidding to host the celebration and billed the seven-month occasion to showcase advances in the “historical, educational, naval, military, and industrial” progress of the region.10 This display worked because ten years later, construction of a new naval base emerged on the seafaring site.11 One-hundred years and Naval Station Norfolk is the largest naval complex in the world.

When passengers fly in and out of Norfolk International Airport, there is a reason the United Service Organizations (USO) is there. This organization assists United States military members and their families. The city and entire Hampton Roads region would not be without the United States military. The Department of Defense is a strong economic force for the region. Norfolk hosts the North American Treaty Organization, NATO’s North American headquarters but the phantastic function of Norfolk’s mermaid contrasts starkly against the serious deployments of Warsaw’s historic mermaid discussed poignantly in Philip Hayward’s contribution to this cluster. The decision was made for the fun-loving mermaid, a figure not known for traditional power in the American imagination but play. Mermaids whisk thoughts away from the might of the military and offer the city a means to promote itself as an inviting place. Mermaids diverge from harsh realities like a regional economy dependent on global military engagement, an encroaching sea, and decades of city planning guided by racial oppression that has shaped present day problems related to traffic, education, incarceration, and poverty. Mermaids on parade provide a mental landscape of make-believe created by those with ties to business in the city of Norfolk; they provide an alternative to reality, an imaginative sphere. Some might say, the mermaid figure offers ideas of new beginnings, a spark for change. Others might say that it is yet another ploy to avoid resolving real issues that affect the city.

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The mermaids are concentrated where Norfolk’s wealth resides, downtown. The Interactive Map provides names and location for the mermaids. These creatures have an active life on local news stations where anchors bring excitement and publicity to the project while also offering a playful contrast from regular gloom filled stories.12 The merriment around mermaids featured on television appears to be more theatrical than practical. The mermaids can be difficult to find. When they are spotted, their temporal fiber-glass make-up gives the appearance of something that needs more investment. Mermaids were purchased by individuals or businesses and displayed mostly in public spaces, the city then decided to name itself after mermaids. The rebranded neighborhood signs, figures 9-12, and municipal park signs, figures 13-15, display a mermaid but the signs would do their job even if the figure were not there. Does the whole city see itself as Mermaid City or even as a municipality in need of a mascot?

Norfolk’s fiber-glass mermaids are both massed produced and personalized to fit their location. Because of this paradox, the mermaids are a contested example of cultural pluralism. Artists had to fit their imagination to a figure that was already decided for them. 2017 officially brought Norfolk’s mermaids into view when the city trademarked the mermaid logo.

She appears to leap out of water and she adheres to trope ideas of beauty in American popular culture. She has Eurocentric features, a skinny waist, slightly-wide hips, a flat mid-section, and she looks young. The sculptures look slightly different. There are two mermaid molds; the most used fiberglass mold is the one with her arms outstretched as seen in figures 1-6 and her focus is in the direction of the arm in front, looking away and ahead.

Figure 1. Music Mosaic rests above the Norva, a music venue in Downtown Norfolk.

Figure 2. Vertical installations exist at other locations too. Her name is Ships Ahoy and behind her is a mural commissioned by the Virginia Maritime Association.


Figures 3 and 4. Outside of Norfolk’s Federal Building are two mermaids. Miss Definitely had a hat. Fiberglass is a temporal product not that sturdy for long-term outdoor art installations.

Figure 5. In front of Norfolk’s Van Wyck Public Library is Vannika Wyck. She used have a book in her hand.

Figure 6. Not all the mermaids are built from short lived fiber-glass, Karen, in downtown Norfolk, is made from Bronze and is dedicated to a city employee.

Figure 7. Princess Azaela is the first installed mermaid. She is located in MacArthur Mall which opened around the same time the arrival of Mermaids on Parade. Despite its initial allure, MacArthur Mall saw the same decline as other in-door shopping centers during the aughts.

Figure 8. Below Princess Azalea is a map of the mermaids. This is an early map that shows a concentration of mermaids in Norfolk’s downtown area.

Figures 9-12. Mermaids on Parade brought Neighborhood signs to Norfolk. Civic leagues wanted consistency and identification.

Figures 13-14. A map of Norfolk’s waterfront is adorned by a mermaid seeming to float from the sign. Town Point Park is waterfront property where annual festivals are held.

 Figure 15. Norfolk’s Oceanview neighborhood’s water tank has two mermaids adorning it.

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Norfolk, Virginia

Norfolk’s identity is shaped by its geographic proximity at the center of the United States’ eastern seaboard. It is decidedly mid-Atlantic. Inside the geographic region called Hampton Roads, it is one of several cities. They are not exactly northern and not quite southern. There is a transient nature in Norfolk in particular and Hampton Roads in general. People on deployments come and go from military bases within the 757. The identity is also less rigid because of the people settling in the region who would rather not go too far either north or south. Hampton Roads is a connected region of cities via the intricate highways, bridges, and tunnels that move thousands of people by ferry, vehicle, tractor trailer, and bus via the Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) every day.

Hampton Roads is the hometown of producers: Timbaland, Missy Elliott, and the Neptunes duo Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo—whose talents brought considerable success to themselves and other artists around the turn of the 21stcentury and they all continue to bring sonic sensations to diverse publics. Their music does not adhere to regional codes; they transcend genres as well. Norfolk is too far south to be in the DMV, which has its own distinctive sounds and for people familiar with cities in or south of North Carolina, Norfolk may seem contrastive to more southern locales. Spaciously sandwiched between two larger cities—Norfolk power brokers searched for a way to stand out amidst its more prominent siblings. Richmond—the former capital of the Confederacy, and the current state’s capital has inherent pull. Virginia Beach—known for its boardwalk and its namesake water feature—sits at the southern border of Norfolk. Pharrell Williams’ Something in the Water (SITW) festival calls VA Beach home too. A partnership between SITW, Virginia Beach and Norfolk cities could be the start of something nice.

Norfolk’s DJ Bee has a brick-and-mortar commons space called Freshtopia. People like DJ Bee provide capacity for a true commons or collective engagement with people and ideas through his community bike rides and the shop itself—not to mention his turntablism which can be heard on his online radio platform. Rooted in Norfolk is the Virginia Arts Festival (VAF) which brings national and international performance art to the region each year. Although VAF is homebased in Norfolk, it partners with other cities to host events. Hampton Roads has its own public media stations, WHRO and WHRV, both are based in Norfolk. The city is home to a community college and four-year universities too. The community centered, creative, and resilient vibes and practices have been in Norfolk—though in different forms—for some time without the aid of mermaids.

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A Whole New City

Beginning in 2000, the city marketed itself as a site looking ahead to the future. They wanted to make Norfolk something new and to do that, they chose something in the water. Unlike Richmond and Williamsburg, Norfolk did not use history as the center of its marketing strategy. The city’s elite adopted a timeless creature while blinding themselves to Norfolk’s past and vibrant present. The mermaid does not have a connection to Norfolk’s Massive Resistance in the mid-twentieth century. It does not have connections to Norfolk’s colonial nor Civil War past nor the current presence of the United States military, all of which have dramatically influenced Norfolk. Mermaids arouse feelings of animation and make-believe in the popular American imagination. Perhaps this is why Norfolk chose to splash an image of the mermaid to cityscapes at the turn of the twenty-first century. Mermaids provide an identity that is untethered to Norfolk’s past and is playful enough to silence critics (most of them) who would rather turn their attention to more serious matters. Mermaids give leaders a quick way to simplify complex organs that compose cities. Whether it is Charm City or Mermaid City, people in power concerned about advertisement, will sometimes give cursory treatments to the convoluted composition that give cities their identity.

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This is part of the cluster Our Mermaid Craze. Read the other posts here. 

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  1. Bill Schadewald, “CowParade outshines the herd of slogans.” Houston Business Journal, November 16, 2001, 70. Gale Business: Insights (accessed September 6, 2023).
  2. Patricia C. Phillips, “Temporality and Public Art.” Art Journal (New York. 1960), vol. 48, no. 4, 1989, p. 332.
  3. Lynne Peskoe, “Analyzing Every Second of the Classic Dial Up Modem Sound,” Popular Mechanics, May 2, 2022,
  4. Laurie Freeman, “Cows on Parade”: Peter Hanig.” Advertising Age 71, no. 27 (Jun 26, 2000): 1.
  5. The majority of municipal fiberglass art projects benefited charitable organizations and used local artists of all levels. The nation’s capital had donkeys and elephants dubbed “Party Animals”:; NYC had cows:; Orlando, Florida paraded lizards:;  Rochester, New York, paraded horses:; Berlin, Germany had Buddy Bears:;The Finger Lakes paraded deers:; Pigs pay homage to the pork industry of Smithfield, Virginia:
  6. “Norfolk’s Mermaids Raise Cash With Spirit Auction At Norva Nets $85,300 To Support City’s Arts Programs.” Virginian Pilot, December 1, 2000, B1. Gale Business: Insights (accessed September 23, 2023).
  7. Gail Fenske, City Beautiful Movement,” and “James Gamble Rogers.” In The Dictionary of Art, edited by Jane Shoaf Turner, vol. 7, 357; vol. 12.
  8. City of Norfolk, The city’s statement on the mermaid is that she should support the Norfolk’s branding message: “prime waterfront location; focus on resilience; a fun, community-oriented, approachable personality; a contemporary, progressive and hip image. She should also work for the city across all applications and across departments, programs and initiatives. Finally, the city would be able to leverage nearly 20 years of equity in the mermaid mascot.” It is not clear by reading this statement on the mermaids what “leverage 20 years of equity in the mermaid mascot” means. This statement is hollow just like the interiors of the mermaid made of fiber glass.
  9. Jon Glass, “Norfolk To Add Splash Of Mermaids Statues Of The Damsels Of The Deep To Decorate Downtown, Other Venues.” Virginian Pilot, November 13, 1999, A1. Gale Business: Insights (accessed September 23, 2023).
  10. Library of Virginia de Ruiter, Brian. “Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition of 1907” Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 06 Sep. 2023. Last updated: 2021, February 09,
  11. Ibid.
  12. Neil Postman’s Conscientious Objections: Stirring Up Trouble About Language, Technology, and Education discusses this phenomenon in the book’s chapter titled, “The News”.