A Japanese artist uses 3D printing to create cityscape shells for the crustaceans.

Hermit crabs are naturally found along the shoreline of tropical areas throughout the Indo-Pacific region, the western Atlantic, and the Carribean. But the ones in Aki Inomata’s latest art project move from city to city—from Tokyo to Paris, even to the Greek island of Santorini.

The whole migration process takes just a few minutes: All the crustaceans have to do is move into a new shell.

Using 3D printing, the Japanese artist makes homes for hermit crabs in the shape of buildings and entire cities. The project, called “Why Not Hand Over a ‘Shelter’ to Hermit Crabs?,” began in 2009, when Inomata printed clear, plastic shells featuring miniature-scale Tokyo- and Paris-style houses. Here’s her method: She starts by replicating the natural shape of hermit crab shells through CT scans. She then designs and adds the buildings using special 3D-printing software. After her concept is realized, Inomata places it in a tank and waits for a lucky hermit crab to move into its luxurious new home.

Between 2010 and 2013, the artist has added iconic places like New York City, Tokyo, and Thailand’s famous Wat Bang Phra temple into the mix. Her most recent addition, according to her website, is a wedding chapel in Japan.

But for Inomata, the project is more than just a whimsical idea. In Japanese, hermit crabs are called yadokari, she writes on her website. That translates to “somebody living in a temporary dwelling”—and in that sense, hermit crabs are somewhat like humans.

“The hermit crabs in my piece, who exchange shelters representing cities of the world, seem to be crossing over national borders,” she wrote. “It also brings to mind migrants and refugees changing their nationalities and the places where they live.”

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