File Photo/Daily. Buy this photo.

It was March 2020, the beginning of the pandemic, and David Zinn, a local street artist, stepped out into the empty streets of Ann Arbor looking for something to draw. Storefronts were close to abandoned, Ann Arbor shop displays were emptied, and the elementary school artwork hanging on the windows after Youth Art Month were clinging to what was left of the scotch tape. 

This is where Zinn said he found his inspiration — a piece of pottery that was shaped like a narwhal on display behind a window. He took to his own canvas, kneeling on the concrete sidewalk in front of the window, and got to work. When he was finished, a narwhal was looking up at the piece of pottery, utterly in love.

Stories like this, and more, are featured in Zinn’s newest book, “Chance Encounters.” Zinn, an Ann Arbor native and University of Michigan alum, has been a source of happiness for many locals throughout his time in Ann Arbor.

Zinn’s art journey began when he drew on sidewalks in celebration of good weather.

“When we do get beautiful weather, it’s a special thing, because you know there’s lots of other weather coming very soon,” Zinn said. “So finding excuses to be outside on nice days is, I think, a logical priority, and (drawing) was mine.”

Ann Arbor resident Praveena Ramaswami said she had come across Zinn’s work several times. According to Ramaswami, Zinn’s art isn’t just nice to look at, but an experience to enjoy.

“He’s always interacting with kids around during his artwork,” Ramaswami said. “It’s a very welcoming process that he goes through.”

Zinn’s primary medium of art is chalk, and that means that many of his pieces only exist temporarily, with Michigan weather often erasing his pieces for good. Ramaswami said this is just another unique component that adds to the impact of Zinn’s artwork.

“It brings so much joy knowing that (the art) won’t be there (forever),” Ramaswami said. “It’s a beautiful thing to think about, how art is seen and experienced, and that it’s not always permanent, it’s ever changing.”

Zinn often participates in the Ann Arbor Summer Festival — a four-week outdoor festival that attracts over 80,000 people each year in June — where he contributes his pieces throughout the festival. Michael Michelon, executive director of the festival, said Zinn’s artwork has become a key part of the festival.

“He sees the world in such a unique and special way,” Michelon said. “Anytime he creates art he’s sharing that perspective with everyone.”

Michelon said Zinn’s artwork and its impact on the festival goers is one of their proudest experiences to offer attendees.

“The impact of David’s artwork is probably one of the best examples of what we hope to accomplish with the festival,” Michelon said.

Zinn said he didn’t begin to notice the impact of his artwork within the broader community until the COVID-19 pandemic. He was working in various locations abroad prior to the pandemic, but then went back when Italy shut down. He then started to create art around Ann Arbor to share on social media to spread more positivity.

“I noticed that some people were being really cheered up by the things I posted,” Zinn said. “So I figured ‘OK, this is going to be my job. I’m going to cheer up the first responders.’”

Zinn’s first book, “Chance Encounters,” which will be published in April 2022, includes photographs of his work both before and during the pandemic. He said this is the first collection of photographs of his art to be widely published.

“I’m very excited that this (book)’s going to be much easier for people to get their hands on,” Zinn said.

In the book, Zinn said adding captions helped him better convey the stories with his art. 

“(Adding captions) feels pretty important, in part because it helps add an extra layer of storytelling to the pictures, and it makes it more accessible to people,” Zinn said. “It also helped because my only advanced degree was a bachelor’s degree in creative writing.”

Zinn said he started experimenting with chalk art while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in creative writing at the University. Zinn started drawing chalk on a flimsy chalkboard that hung on his dorm door on the fourth floor of East Quad. 

“It’s an interesting lesson in how the thing that turned out to be important about the time I spent at the University of Michigan wasn’t necessarily in the classroom,” Zinn said. “There’s a lot of other stuff that becomes important later that you never would have thought would have been crucial to your life story.”

This story, the narwhal story and many others, are included in Zinn’s book, but the stories that stand out the most about Zinn’s artwork are those of people’s experiences with him. Ramaswami said that Zinn’s art isn’t just beautiful, but that it reminds people of the beauty that already exists in the world.

“I think (Zinn’s art) just makes you stop and think about the beauty and everything around you,” Ramaswami. “It’s almost like smelling the roses.”

Daily Staff Reporter Riley Hodder can be reached at