Street artist dwells on impermanence of sidewalk

 Man has created scores of chalk drawings over three decades

By Akshay Seth
The Michigan Daily (Ann Arbor)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — “It seemed weird to pay tuition to be taught something I was already good at.”

Ann Arbor street artist David Zinn speaks in a low voice when asked if he studied design in college.

He looks around the coffee shop furtively, as if a little cautious. Our meeting was meant to be outside, but due to a small misunderstanding, we’re now perched right in front of the main counter, surrounded by a typical Sunday afternoon crowd. Zinn settles in, clears his throat and elaborates.

“Maybe it wasn’t the right decision, but it seemed logical at the time,” he told The Michigan Daily.

Zinn ended up attending the University’s Residential College to study Creative Writing and English instead. He didn’t become a writer. In the context of getting paid to put words on a piece of paper, he described the degree as worthless, but was quick to defend his teenage self’s decision-making process.

“I guess (writing) was something I wanted to be able to do,” he said. “But it was also something I didn’t already do compulsively. But, with that in mind, I’ve usually only used art to pay the bills.”

Over the course of almost three decades in Ann Arbor, Zinn has created scores of drawings on any imaginable sidewalk in town. His tools have included everything from charcoal to paint, but he’s cultivated something of a reputation for his work with chalk.

The creatures he brings to life peer out of the ground with childlike innocence. The most famous ones, Sluggo and The Flying Pig, are featured on the homepage of his website, both draped by a simple, Pixar-esque message: “Occupy your imagination. Or someone else will.”

“One of the things that made sidewalk art so appealing, in addition to it being ludicrous — I mean, you’re playing with children’s toys so there’s no highfalutin baggage,” he said, “is that it’s not permanent.”

Permanence, Zinn explains, can magnify the relevance an artist inherently implies while crafting more traditional work.

“I tried to stay away from what a lot of people call ‘real art’ because whenever you put brush to canvas, there’s this pressure of wondering whether or not the time, effort and durability you put into defacing that blank space is going to be worth it in the end.”

It’s a far-reaching, generalized philosophy — one that, as Zinn states, can be applicable to any mode of work or life. In essence, if you erase the staying power of what’s in front of you, you’re free to be true to the moment and, by extension, yourself.

“If you stand there, worrying about what you should do with the tools in front of you, you’ll do nothing, and nothing will happen,” Zinn explained. “If you just remember that what you’re about to do is, in fact, pointless and impermanent and ethereal, it can be the catalyst that makes work possible. It pushes you to realize that you should just be enjoying the process of creating.”

The process has let Zinn develop a style of sidewalk art that, when pressed, he could only describe as “kind of a Rorschach test” — a Rorschach test administered by the disjointed nature of Zinn’s medium: concrete sidewalks.

“The sidewalk is actually not a blank canvas because it has all these wonderful specks and pebbles and holes and cracks, so what you’re really doing is you’re connecting the dots,” he said. “It’s a free association experiment where you stare at all those pebbles and bits and pieces of gum until you see something, and you just draw what you see.”

That almost otherworldly concept of subject matter presenting itself in moments of visual inspiration is one that Zinn references when describing how he came across Sluggo, the green alien-like creature that inhabits many of his drawings.

“The first time that I thought he appeared was as a drawing of a kid. But, no offense to this kid, his head was strangely eggplant-shaped,” he recounted.

“So, I set out to draw this happy, dancing child, and this happy, dancing child has an aubergine-shaped head that I then had to deal with. I tried to wing it.”

It didn’t work.

“Every time I tried to put eyes on this head, it looked terrifying. It was just an unhappy-looking mutant child, and I kept having to erase and erase and erase,” Zinn said. “So, out of sheer annoyance, I drew eyes above his head. Fine. There. Done. And as soon as I did that, he was OK with what he was.”

Since that fateful first encounter, Sluggo has become Zinn’s most recognizable character and also one to which (“at risk of sounding too arty”) he feels he’s developed an emotional attachment. But if there’s a place where the green mutant won’t be found, it’s a wall.

Walls aren’t public property and, as a result, are out of bounds for Zinn’s artistic pursuits. Because Ann Arbor has such open policies about using sidewalks and other collective University spots for open art, Zinn never really felt the need to endeavor into graffiti territory.

Ann Arbor law allows artists like Zinn to use chalk on public sidewalks and walkways as long as they aren’t a disturbance to anyone walking down the street or going to work. Graffiti, traditionally associated with images of hooded hooligans gleefully marauding around at night with cans of spray paint close at hand, is a different story. It’s usually on private property, a lot more permanent and therefore more likely to be fined.

“The only issue I have with graffiti is that it puts people on edge when they look at me,” Zinn said. “I’ve had a few run-ins with police officers who had to make sure that it was indeed chalk I was using, which, interestingly, is how I found out chalk was legal.”

Of course, Zinn adds, graffiti puts local business owners in a bad mood because they are required by the city to remove it from their property after-the-fact or face the risk of ever-heftier fines. As a result, usually the only backlash Zinn ever receives for his work has to do with drawing on walls classified as private property.

“It’s nice to be working in a medium where I actually don’t have to hide in darkness and break the law,” he said. “Because, technically, it’s a performance art. I can even put out a hat for tips — something I don’t think you can do with spray paint.”

And he’s done it in the past, the first time collecting a grand total of $3.35.

“It was a bunch of teenagers who pointed out the lunacy of drawing outside with a hat on your head instead of on the ground,” he said.

Zinn speaks at length about coming to terms with the perceived irrelevance of his medium and art. Unlike traditional forms of expression, he never gets to see the reactions of his intended audience. He draws on the sidewalk and walks away. To some degree, he describes, there’s a certain freedom that comes with not looking back.

“It’s reassuring to think that because you don’t know how it’s going to be perceived, or who’s going to see it or what effect it’s going to have on them, the possibilities are endless,” he said. “Even though I don’t cure cancer, I can draw something on the path that someone takes to work on a job that affects someone who does. And even if they hated what I do, that might be the catalyst.”

When the discussion shifted back to his time as a student in Ann Arbor, Zinn seems a little bit more at ease. He laughed briefly and further explained his decision to not study design.

“That was my college self making a decision,” he said. “Thinking back, if I was absolutely being honest, I’d say that college self was using that decision to rationalize not wanting to take the bus to North Campus.”

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