- Marlene Lacasse/Daily
By Akshay Seth, Daily B-Side Editor
Published September 12, 2013
“It seemed weird to pay tuition to be taught something I was already good at.”
More like this
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 said.
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.