Student’s blåhaj distribution makes a splash

Stuffed+sharks+from+IKEA+known+as+bl%C3%A5haj+are+piled+on+a+table+at+the+Courtyard+Cafe+in+the+Illini+Union+for+a+distribution+that+was+run+by+Yuyang+Zhao%2C+senior+in+Engineering.+They+spent+over+%243%2C000+on+around+140+bl%C3%A5hajar+to+distribute+during+the+week+of+Sept.+12.+%0A

Photo courtesy of Yuyang Zhao

Stuffed sharks from IKEA known as blåhaj are piled on a table at the Courtyard Cafe in the Illini Union for a distribution that was run by Yuyang Zhao, senior in Engineering. They spent over $3,000 on around 140 blåhajar to distribute during the week of Sept. 12.

By Matt Troher, Assistant Features Editor

On the evening of Sept. 12, a mass of fuzzy blue plush sharks in varying sizes laid strewn across the concrete bench that lines the north edge of the Main Quad. The angular mass of stuffed sharks juxtaposed against the smooth grass background.

These stuffed sharks, an IKEA product known as blåhaj, plural blåhajar, were waiting to be distributed to students. A gaggle of roughly 30 students stood around the heap of sharks, craving to take one home with them.

Yuyang Zhao, senior in Engineering, was running the distribution, eager to give a new home to these fish out of water. Zhao had been distributing the sharks for over a week and said they plan to continue until their stock of blåhajar is fully distributed.

The word blåhaj (pronounced blow-hai) derives from “blue shark” in Swedish. IKEA began distributing an earlier iteration of the stuffed animal in 2010 named “Klappar Haj,” which roughly translates to “pettable shark.” The stuffed animal was renamed to blåhaj in 2013 and has grown in popularity ever since.

A few weeks before the distribution, Zhao bought a blåhaj from IKEA and had it in tow when they attended their CS 421: Programming Languages and Compilers class. Another student in Zhao’s class posted on the r/UIUC subreddit that they saw someone attending class with a “dolphin.” Zhao posted a picture of their new shark the following day, receiving substantial attention.

Users lamented in Zhao’s post that they weren’t able to acquire a blåhaj — the nearest IKEA to the University is 126 miles away in a Chicago suburb, with another nearly an equal distance away in Indianapolis.

Zhao offered to buy a blåhaj for each commenter, which in turn drove more users to comment and request blåhajar. Zhao began organizing requests through their blåhaj-themed Discord server and then traveled to the Chicago IKEA to grab as many blåhajar as possible.

“(Interest in the blåhajar) has been exponential,” Zhao said.

According to Zhao, they spent over $3,000 on around 140 blåhajar and had been distributing them at the Illini Union throughout the week. Due to the large number of blåhajar, Zhao moved Monday’s distribution outdoors.

Victor Jiao, senior in Engineering, came to the distribution on the Main Quad after seeing Zhao’s posts on the r/UIUC subreddit. According to Jiao, Zhao’s posts and blåhaj distribution made the blue shark a viral topic on campus.

“I’ve seen (blåhajar) around for a while online, but it’s been popping up a lot more recently, especially in (University) circles, mostly because of this,” Jiao said.

Looking at a blåhaj is a stimulating experience, and holding one is even more so. There is something aesthetically pleasing about the shark’s form. It’s fuzzy yet sleek, oblong yet lopsided. One becomes overwhelmed with the urge to chuckle and squeeze it.

As students picked up their blåhajar from Zhao’s distribution, many tightly embraced their new stuffed animals as they walked away. New owners offered passersby a chance to pet the blåhajar.

In recent years, the blåhaj has amassed a dedicated internet following. Videos with the tag #blåhaj have garnered over 3 million views on TikTok, and a subreddit dedicated to the stuffed animal has over 45,000 subscribers. A brief search of the word blåhaj on Twitter returns image after image of users sharing their plush sharks, with many of these images being unsafe to view in a college library.

Some students like Charles Xu, senior in Engineering, were drawn to the shark because of its internet popularity.

“It’s a funny meme shark,” Xu said. “I just saw it, and I wanted one. It’s also apparently a bigger thing for the LGBT community, which I think is really cool.”

The shark’s blue fuzz, white face and pink mouth mimic the colors of the transgender pride flag. Therefore, the online transgender community has adopted the blåhaj as a symbol of trans pride. When searching “blåhaj” on google, the fourth most popular term is “blåhaj trans.”

Zhao explained what makes a blåhaj so appealing.

“It’s a cute shark, obviously,” Zhao said. “More than that, it’s a meme and just happens to have the same color scheme as the trans flag. The trans community is also interested in it.”

 

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