Ann Arbor’s favorite chalk artist publishes new book of drawings

"Nadine Meets the Audiophile Wombat." by David Zinn (David Zinn)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – With over 2.7 million followers on TikTok, David Zinn is known around the world for turning dull sidewalks, tree stumps and bricks into whimsical works of chalk art.

Zinn’s characters, which range from adorable animals to fantastical beings, hide around Ann Arbor and come out to visit when the weather is good. Sadly, the temporary creatures don’t stay long.

However, fans can soon welcome Zinn’s creations—which he calls friends—into their homes with the March 15 release of his new book, “Chance Encounters: Temporary Street Art.”

Flipping through the pages, Ann Arborites might recognize some of the quirky three-dimensional friends, like pigasus Philomena, the googly-eyed Sluggo, Nadine the mouse and the mustachio’d Leonard.

The book also has an introduction by Zinn, which he called “the most thorough explanation on paper to date” of why he draws, why he doesn’t plan on stopping, why Ann Arbor and how doodling led him to chalk art.

"Nadine and the Improvised Wings." by David Zinn. (David Zinn)

The Tree Town chalk artist can often be found crouched on the pavement downtown bringing new creations to life. With many people at home during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Zinn was able to draw on spaces that were previously unavailable—like a perfectly smooth spot of concrete in front of a parking meter.

“I’d never drawn on it because it was installed directly in front of a machine for people to pay for parking,” he said.

It’s important for Zinn to not be in the way of those coming and going when he draws.

“So I’ve never drawn on that spot because it was guaranteed that in the time it would take for me to draw something, a lot of people would need to stand exactly in that spot to pay for parking.”

It was “a strange, glorious moment” when he realized that no one was around and that the spot was waiting to become part of a chalk drawing.

"A brief between-rainstorms interlude by Augustus the Flautomaton," by David Zinn. (David Zinn)

The pandemic also showed Zinn something else: his belief that, even if condemned to never leave his own street, he wouldn’t run out of drawing spaces. In fact, for a whole year, he barely had to leave his own block to find good spots, he said.

Much like how he’ll never run out of new places for drawing, he doesn’t think he’ll ever run out of imaginative creatures. Making new friends comes easy for Zinn and it’s rare for him to draw the same thing more than once. His art is improvised and he works with what is already in place—whether it’s a piece of gum or a spec on the pavement.

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Zinn is well known locally and globally, but TikTok has given the Michigan artist an even larger audience, which he said was a bit intimidating. While he is used to his fan bases on Facebook and Instagram, the chalk art account gained over 2.5 million followers between July 2021 and this past February.

Read: A chat with Ann Arbor’s chalk creature creator, David Zinn

He joined the video-based platform after one of his best advisers, a teen in his neighborhood, suggested it. But the sudden explosion in popularity and intense amplification of his art is something new.

However, he said that drawing and making art is still a therapeutic experience—something that drew the artist towards using chalk in the first place.

Zinn puts the finishing touches on a drawing featuring Sluggo and a new creature on Oct. 3, 2018 (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

A commercial illustrator, Zinn said that going outside and drawing with chalk started as a good excuse to brainstorm client ideas while still working.

It also gave him the opportunity to see how his subjects interacted with the real world. Zinn joked that sometimes—if things are going well with a drawing—passersby can catch him talking to his new creations as he figures out what they want to look like.

He said that his creatures are his friends and he likes that they come and go.

“People think the sad part [of using chalk] is that you can’t take it home when actually, the best part, ironically, is that you can’t take it home. Because, if you could take it home, you would be wanting to make sure that it was good enough to take home, and you’d be wondering what you do with it after you took it home,” Zinn said.

His ephemeral characters pop up in other places, too. He has seen photos of his creatures showing up miles and miles away in other states and even other countries.

Some Ann Arborites actively go out to find his work, but the artist said that his favorite type of discovery is accidental. He likes when people just happen upon his art and have the chance to ponder the “hows” and “whys” of his creations.

Those wanting to ponder at home can pick up a copy of his new book during a book launch at Nicola’s Books in April.

“Chance Encounters: Temporary Street Art” will be available wherever books are sold.

One of David Zinn's drawings outside The Cupcake Station in downtown Ann Arbor. (David Zinn)

About the Author:

Sarah has worked for WDIV since June 2018. She covers community events, good eats and small businesses in Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in Applied Linguistics from Grand Valley State University.