The hermit crab is a kind of nomad of the crustacean world. As they grow, the small, orange-speckled creatures shift from shell to shell. Some are kicked out of their homes by larger, stronger hermit crabs.

Japanese artist Aki Inomata was inspired by this natural exchange of shells between hermit crabs. She used their dwelling behaviors as an artistic metaphor for human movement patterns by digitally modeling crystalline shells adorned with cityscapes.

In her project Why Not Hand Over a ‘Shelter’ to Hermit Crabs?, Inomata recorded hermit crabs crawling into a miniature version of New York’s sparkling skyline, resting peacefully within tiny Bangkok temples, and carrying Dutch windmills. She started developing the art project after attending a 2009 exhibition called “No Man’s Land” at the former French Embassy in Japan, which was swapped between Japanese and French ownership over the years. Inomata was inspired by “how a piece of land is peacefully exchanged between two countries,” she writes on her website.

She documented the shell-making process in the video above, which shows the urban landscapes rise up in shiny, clear resin. Inomata first took CT scans of hermit crab shells to obtain data on the interior spiral, then 3-D printed the new temporary city shelters out of non-toxic clear resin. She plopped the digitally made shells into a hermit crab’s terrarium where it could choose which shell it wanted to move into on its own. The transparency of the shells allows viewers to see the hermit crab wiggle into a new home.

Inomata took pictures of the hermit crabs in each of her specially designed cityscape shells, which were showcased in a gallery in Tokyo, Japan.

Hermit crabs in Japanese are called “yakadori”—literally “one who lives in a temporary dwelling,” reports ArchDaily. Like hermit crabs, we too move from place to place as we outgrow cities and homes. “The hermit crabs in my piece, who exchange shelters representing cities of the world, seem to be crossing over national borders,” Inomata writes. “It also brings to mind migrants and refugees changing their nationalities and the places where they live.”  

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