David Zinn Doesn’t Care What Sticks Around

Written by J.P.J. Potts

He had to make sure I wasn’t using a troupe of small girls as a diversion,” says David Zinn, a wry crease around his smile.

I suggest that using girl scouts for anything other than a cookie jar or guerilla warfare is probably illegal. He laughs. “Well, that depends. It all boils down to whether what you’re doing is reprehensible, I guess. And graffiti is that middle ground.”

Art by David Zinn / Photo Provided by Artist

It’s a blinding day for Zinn in Ann Arbour, Michigan. The he we’re discussing is a policeman. This “very dutiful” man was playing lookout for scouts as they cleaned up flower beds downtown — an annual duty that suits the city, which is designed for walking more than most in America. College kids and salaried aesthetes are used to seeing beautiful things on their way to work or school. This spring day was no different; another prune of civic pride. But while the cop nodded approvingly at the girls, he clocked a guy drawing on the floor, and assumed it was vandalism. Cue twirling truncheon. Perhaps even a well, well, well then.

But Zinn had been hired. In fact, he was safer than he realized. Ann Arbour law stipulates that you can create street art here, wherever you like, on one condition — it doesn’t last. “The temporary medium is easier to forgive,” Zinn says, which suits him fine. For over 20 years, he’s been smuggling delightful drawings into the cracks beneath us: the pavements, asphalt and nettles, the urban acne we ignore like an old face. How does he do it? Chalk. The material we snap in kindergarten, assuming we’re better than that.

“I use chalk because it’s a very familiar tool,” he explains, “and it isn’t a long road full of spending money and time that people don’t have.

“I use chalk because it’s a very familiar tool,” he explains, “and it isn’t a long road full of spending money and time that people don’t have. You probably have some chalk in your house right now. And if you don’t, you can buy it for pennies. Even better? If you can only draw a stick figure, great! You’re in the middle percentage of chalk drawers.” Zinn has always been a doodler, an evangelist for silliness and art without a capital F. As a kid, he scribbled in the corner of his homework, on pads, on anything in front of him, to avoid talking to people. “This private universe for yourself,” he calls it.

Art by David Zinn / Photo Provided by Artist

The doodle cosmos only grew when he finished college in 1990. He got his first job as an illustrator after someone noticed that the column of boxes on a weekly sign-in sheet next to Zinn’s name didn’t show ticks or crosses, but a vertical cartoon. Zinn was drawing just because he could — and that’s become his philosophy. The ease of chalk, the impermanence, means you have to let it go. Which means letting yourself go, too.

And then there’s the Earless Mickey. Zinn’s TED Talk lays it out. In 1985, when he was still in high school, young David came across a drawing on Washington Street in front of him: A Mickey Mouse with no ears. It was too good to be a mistake and surely couldn’t be a symbol, as he puts it, for “the cultural deafness of corporate entertainment media.” No, it was just a mouse without the best bits. So he walked on, perplexed. Then a couple of weeks later, he passed the same spot again, at night, when a nearby streetlamp shone upon a parking meter. The shadows made ears on the ground. “Suddenly understanding that this seemingly random thing had been so precisely placed for such a ridiculous reason . . . It made me childishly happy. I wanted to tell everyone I knew, so they could have the same experience, and then realized they couldn’t have the same experience unless they discovered it for themselves.”

Art by David Zinn / Photo Provided by Artist

Almost 40 years later, Zinn is an ardent disciple of pareidolia, the habit of seeing patterns in the arrangement of forms, like a scream on a tree stump or a plough in the stars. It’s what drove him outside on a hot afternoon, several decades into his freelance career, to draw a child leaping from a pile of leaves. He couldn’t stop. Streetside scrawls became a personal obsession and a statement against statements. From a rat in a hat in a missing brick to a green urchin with weeds for hair, Zinn’s work can be found all around Ann Arbour’s cracks and holes, so small you’ll probably miss it.

Zinn was drawing just because he could — and that’s become his philosophy. The ease of chalk, the impermanence, means you have to let it go. Which means letting yourself go, too.

These scrawls have earned him a huge following; fans come to see his latest creations before they’re gone. Their mortality is the point — like the Earless Mickey, Zinn’s characters are a tiny explosion of luck, limitations and looking at your feet. On their own, they’re cute, well-crafted critters that might nibble your shoe. But on the canvas of urban paraphernalia, they are miracles. They are art without the presumption of an encounter. “If you’re in a big city, visiting a famous gallery,” he says, “you might only have one day to go. Then, you feel like you have to stand there for the appropriate amount of time. Stepping to the next piece. Room after room after room. You’re in Art Appreciation Mode, and it seems rude to say anything is stupid.”

We all know how swiftly street art can be cut from its surroundings and given a plaque. Chalk, then, is almost an invitation for stupidity. The work itself will be washed, scrubbed or pissed away; why not just enjoy discovering it? And if you do, what parts of you are waiting to play for their own sake? Hunting for Zinn makes you feel like a six-year-old. Instead of, say, the elaborate illusions of Kurt Wenner, in which chalk becomes spectacle, we’re given a reason to look closer at the places we take for granted, suggesting what else might fit limitations beyond our control.

Art by David Zinn / Photo Provided by Artist

I wonder if Zinn’s fanbase defeats the point; aren’t they ruining it, a little, by expecting him now? He believes there are two ways you can look at it: “I do feel sad about that, because I’d like to be able to give people what they want . . .  Although, when you’re out searching, you’re closer to that gallery scenario. In appreciation mode. If you find a piece and someone has spilled coffee on it, you’re disappointed — except if all you noticed was spilled coffee, it hasn’t hurt your day at all.” He still prefers that fans find his doodles by mistake.

Almost 40 years later, Zinn is an ardent disciple of pareidolia, the habit of seeing patterns in the arrangement of forms, like a scream on a tree stump or a plough in the stars.

Actually, he’s heading out right after our call. Zinn plays games of chicken with the weather, which also “never quite happens in the way we expect.” The sun bouncing in his eyes is only half imagined. Quickly, I ask whether he’s familiar with liminal spaces — and the somewhat annoying scene surrounding them — as another urge to look for beauty in the quotidian. “Oh yes! I love ‘em.”

Why? Aren’t they the dark inversion of his approach?

“I’m just glad they have a name. Because if you walk around a lot, as a sort of introverted person, you’ll end up in some odd corners, some strange vestibules of the universe. They have a wonderful energy — a terrifying energy, sometimes. Like, think of a pool party. Everyone’s laughing and splashing and playing games. But they’re not aware of just how much water is underneath.”

I guess what lies below us, and everywhere else in the background of a dreamland, is worth touching to remember it’s even there.

Art by David Zinn / Photo Provided by Artist