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Shark Girl: The four-year rise of a viral icon

Shark Girl, who sits legs crossed, just above Canalside's ice rink, was an oddity in 2014 but an instant hit.

BUFFALO, N.Y. – It's part of Buffalo's culture and part of Canalside's landscape.

Shark Girl has been here long enough now that some people who see her all the time might not know her story.

"It's become a regional icon. We didn't know that that was going to happen, but it's been really amazing the way the community has embraced the image,” said Aaron Ott, Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s public art curator.

Shark Girl first graced Buffalo with her presence in 2014. She came via Albright-Knox in its mission to bring artwork outside the sphere of four museum walls and into different areas of Buffalo.

Shark Girl, who sits legs crossed just above Canalside's ice rink, was an oddity but an instant hit.

Aaron Ott wasn’t worried how she’d be received; He was already familiar with Casey Riordan Millard's artwork and was taken by her style.

"One thing that we find really engaging with audiences is work that inspires a sense of whimsy, right?” Ott said. “Something that is non-threatening, something that you can touch, something that you can interact with. These are sort of different than, maybe, the way you've interacted with artwork in a museum or gallery.”

Since 2014, Shark Girl took off, inspiring selfies, costumes and more. She made national headlines when the Huffington Post ranked her one of the top 35 most Instagram-worthy things in the entire Northeast U.S.

"I was told that you weren't in Buffalo if you didn't take a picture with Shark Girl,” said Hannah Savage, a young woman who just moved to Buffalo in July.

She said Shark Girl’s reputation preceded her move, and that’s why she made it a bucket list priority to visit the painted fiberglass sculpture when 2 On Your Side caught up with her at Canalside.

"When I take my family here, this is one place I bring them,” Savage said.

“I think Shark Girl has set the standard for how we can produce and provide works for the community here and the region, just in the sense of how we can create something that's viral and shareable,” Ott said. “And that people can be enthusiastic about, and that can draw a crowd. That can be a destination. That can encourage people to be a part of it and feel like they're part of something bigger.”

Sure enough – when searching the right haghtags – Instagram is a huge digital gallery of just how viral and shareable Shark Girl is, supporting Huffington Post’s choice to include her in its list.

Part of Shark Girl's charm is her absurdity, and that different, unique aspect draws people to her day after day.

"How do you explain it? Park shark, part human, but it's great,” said Sara Mallaber, of Hamburg.

Visiting Shark Girl for Mallaber was part of a family staycation trip to Canalside and downtown Buffalo in early February.

"It remains kind of humbling and exciting that while she was our first acquisition, she remains arguably our most popular,” Ott said.

Four years ago, Albright-Knox hoped the addition at Canalside would encourage conversation about public art at the very beginning of the museum’s public art initiative.

“It went beyond its objective. I mean, I think for us to be involved with a piece that's so recognizable is a great achievement for the initiative,” Ott said. “It's emblematic of the kind of work we want to do, the kind of impact we want to have for our region and for our communities.”

Shark Girl, Ott said, is here to stay. So what’s the next piece of viral public art for Western New York? Ott said he couldn’t say for sure yet, but he believes something is coming soon.