ANN ARBOR – David Zinn is a born-and-raised Ann Arborite, a self-proclaimed "faculty brat" and a third-generation University of Michigan alum.
He has gained international fame for his whimsical chalk drawings on Ann Arbor's downtown streets -- never signed -- which jump out at the viewer via his clever use of 3D shading and incorporating objects like cracks in the sidewalk or manholes to bring out the beauty in something many of us wouldn't look at twice.
His recurring character, Sluggo, a little green monster with eyes far above his head, has become his default mascot, as has Philomena the winged pig.
We caught up with Zinn on one of the last warm, sunny afternoons in October, and he told us how receiving some Crayola chalk as a gift changed his career, and life, forever.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Take me back to the beginning. You grew up in Ann Arbor, you went to U of M. How soon after you graduated did you start this?
“I don’t think I started drawing on sidewalks until my mid-30s. In fact, I grew up on a dirt road, so literally the first time I ever drew on a sidewalk in my life was in my mid-30s. Only because I think maybe a family member or a friend gave me a box of chalk just as a joke because I was a notorious big kid who clearly was never going to grow up, so it was 'Here, have some Crayolas.'
"I never made the conscious decision like, 'I'm going to be a chalk artist.' I spent 20 years working as a freelance commercial artist for various clients, mostly in Ann Arbor, some farther away. I used to design the labels inside dumpsters that told you what to throw away and what to recycle. It was one of my first jobs. I was very proud that you could not open a dumpster in this town without seeing my (work)."
So was your first chalk art drawn right here in Ann Arbor?
“Oh yeah. Right in my own driveway. It could be part of why it happened is because I had a very steep driveway. It just seemed like it wanted something on it. So it started from there and slowly spread out into other parts of town.
"Actually, the first time I drew on Main Street, at the recommendation of a client, it was almost the last drawing I did downtown. Because Main Street gets so many feet and even though it didn’t rain that day, by the end of the day, the middle of that drawing was almost completely erased because every foot takes a little bit of chalk away.
"I drew right in front of The Peaceable Kingdom because if you were ever to draw a happy little creature on Main Street, that’s where it would be. I was disappointed with how quickly it disappeared, figured it was the wrong place to do it.
"But several weeks later, I was walking down Main Street late at night and there was a piece of paper in the window of Peaceable Kingdom, it was a photograph of that drawing -- which barely even existed for any amount of time -- they had had a chance, they took the time to take a picture of it and it was hanging in the window with the words, 'Chalk Man -- where are you?' And that makes all the difference."
Drawing in a driveway is one thing. Drawing on Main Street Ann Arbor is another thing. Was it daunting to begin drawing in public with so many onlookers and so many feet?
"It’s a mixed bag. Because it’s not normal behavior. Two-thirds of the way into a drawing, 'normal' people don’t necessarily notice (the art). They just notice a man crouched on the sidewalk for unknown reasons. And it’s a palpable feeling of exclusion, that people have, I think, often subconsciously, crossed the street to avoid running into me. Which I am not offended by, because I would probably do it, too.
"And, it gives me the solitude that is necessary to talk to (my) imaginary friends. It's actually much harder when someone does come chat with me -- as much as I love every conversation I've ever had on the street; it’s clearly one of the reasons why I do it. So there’s a real moment of etiquette. Because you can never tell a real person, 'Excuse me, I’m trying to have a conversation with the ground right now.' That really makes them want to avoid you!"
It seems like these creatures are real to you.
"Oh yeah, they’re real. They don’t look real to you?"
How did Sluggo come to be?
"Sluggo was a good learning experience. And at the time, initially, my worst experience drawing on the sidewalk because the thing that I didn’t realize was going to be the case when I went outside to draw on my driveway is that I’d always had a fear of the blank canvas, which seems pretty universal. I didn’t realize that my workaround was to not draw on a blank canvas. Draw on a driveway, which is full of little specks and streaks and little pebbles and places where someone dropped their gum; there’s always stuff there.
"So I was using this technique, and the day that Sluggo first came into my life, I had seen some weird stains and streaks on the sidewalk right in front of my house that looked like it wanted to be a drawing of a small child dancing the jitterbug. I was absolutely certain that’s what was in my head. I could see the knees going towards each other, the elbows up. But maybe because of some weird extra streak from an old leaf that had been there earlier that day, his head was really tall.
"It was not a normal shape for a head; it was a very eggplant shaped head. Which I thought would be fine, because it’s just a chalk drawing. But the problem was, there’s really no good place to put the eyes on an eggplant-shaped head. This child was so unhappy. Every where I put his eyes… he was so upset with me. And it was the first time I had ever been unhappy drawing on the sidewalk.
"I was really frustrated and I thought maybe this was the end. Maybe this was the last time I could draw on a sidewalk because clearly I’m done. And I got so frustrated that I believe I actually said out loud to this unhappy child, 'You don’t like your eyes over here, or over here, I’m just going to put them above your head; how do you like that?'
"The feeling I remember from the time was very much his relief that I had finally figured it out. He had been waiting so patiently (for me) to realize that this is not a drawing of a human child. This is Sluggo. And Sluggo is whatever Sluggo needs to be. And that’s the thing I’d forgotten from when I was drawing as a kid. That if you’re drawing your imaginary friends, they come out however they want to come out. Some days he’s had a tail; most days he doesn’t, but if he wants a tail, who’s gonna stop him?"
With the recurring characters like Sluggo and Philomena the pig, how do you determine who to draw and when?
"It’s ideally done through a minimum of thinking. As soon as you start thinking, you’re already thinking too much. I try not to ever promise to draw Sluggo for money because he might not want to show up that day. The fact that he and the flying pig show up at all is kind of a mystery. I’ve taken on commissions to draw at a certain place at a certain time. It’s safest not to (guarantee who will appear)."
That’s so surprising. Because you seem so calculated in your work. I always imagined you’d set out and say "I’m going to draw this today."
"I wish I could say it is (calculated). I find, though I’m not sure I should be proud to say this, that the philosophy that seems to work for this is if you do not have a plan, you technically cannot fail."
Most people don’t go into work unprepared. That’s unusual – and that’s your modus operandi.
"It takes a little bit of effort, but at the same time, you always have to remind yourself that because something has to happen, anything can fit into that category. As long as something happens, you’re okay. Nothing is the only thing that can mess you up."
These creatures probably appear in Ann Arbor more than anywhere else. But you’ve done this all over the world. Where have your pieces made your mark?
"Several cities in Taiwan. Many of those are still there. Since it was during typhoon season, they asked that I use paint. There may still be some painted in Borås, Sweden. Which is also, coincidentally, the rainiest place in Sweden. They have yearly festival of work created by street artists from all over the world."
Is this chalk art your full-time job now? Did you ever think drawing in your driveway would jump-start your career?
"Hard to believe, isn’t it? Especially because it’s the result of procrastinating from the job I had. That might be the best kind of problem to have."
This is a question I ask a lot of people; a lot of creators and business owners in town. Do you think that being in Ann Arbor is part of the reason why you were able to succeed in this?
"Undeniably. For starters, there are some very practical, pragmatic reasons why this was able to happen in Ann Arbor.
"First of all, it is much more of a walking town than a driving town. And now that I travel so much ... where you go; the feeling of the space you’re walking through has to be just so for walking around the city to be pleasurable. And Ann Arbor somehow got that very, very right. I wander everywhere in this town, and it’s small enough that I’m not in danger of getting lost or ending up someplace where I’m not supposed to be. I could walk across the town if I really wanted to from cornfield to cornfield, which I find weirdly reassuring."
Who do you do this for? Are the drawings for you? Are they for people who are walking by?
"That’s a very apt question. The simplest, easiest answer is that I do this for me. I’m very grateful that it's had such a positive effect on people, but it's become my job only because people have reacted to it well, which makes me a little embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t doing this for them. I was doing this for me because I wanted to cheer myself up."
But you managed to cheer up others in the process.
"That, hopefully, is the positive moral of the story. You don’t have to worry about saving the world. If you set out with the goal of cheering up everybody, what are you going to do that’s going to cheer up the whole world? If you just try to cheer yourself up, just you, that will have a ripple effect on everybody you come into contact with that day.
"I think there's a dangerous lesson there -- that just worrying about yourself has legitimacy. Because if you’re taking care of yourself, you are taking care of the rest of us, to some degree."
You’re very philosophical.
"Too philosophical. I clearly have way too much time to think!"
I want to talk about the temporary aspect of it all. I would imagine that any artist would struggle with that.
"You would think. This is another very apt question. The fun part of making art is the making art. Stuff that happens before that is anxiety and self-doubt and trying to break through the resistance of not knowing if you’re ready yet or whether you should do this or do that. So before isn’t the fun part. After also isn’t the fun part. After is framing and shipping and hanging and selling and giving to your mom and filling your entire attic. None of these are the fun part. The fun part is the making of the art. The only reason you’re doing this is for the joy of doing it."
How has the rise of social media changed your work?
"I got really lucky. It’s the art that gets famous, which is how it’s supposed to be. I don’t think any artist wants themselves to be more prominent than their art. And social media has been pretty good about that. I’m actually impressed with how often my work has been shared on the internet and it is still attached to some guy in Ann Arbor. I put no effort into watermarking it or tagging it or making sure people knew it was me.
"And the internet has been surprisingly polite. At the same time, I have a vague impression by phones I’ve been shown by students in town where there’s a whole article written in Chinese with pictures of Sluggo, that apparently, what some people told me, Sluggo is famous in China. I am not, but apparently he’s very popular. It’s entirely possible that someone is making millions of dollars off of Sluggo merchandise in China."
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