Doodling counts: A Q&A with artist David Zinn

Maybe you're having a down day. Maybe the cruel rut of work or life or world affairs has you thinking that humankind is, well, not being its best self. Let's pretend that on such a day you're wandering around downtown Ann Arbor, staring at your feet, avoiding the glances of other people. And there, on the sidewalk you stumble across a little green alien with big eyes and his friend, the pig with the wings. Strange, you think. 

You bend down to get a closer look and, quite unintentionally, find yourself smiling at these cartoon chalk creations. They're delightful but there's something more. They're struggling with some mundane task - raking leaves or walking through wet paint or peering out of a "lost" poster. And you find yourself identifying with their situation and, well, feeling a whole lot better. And it dawns on you how easy it would have been to miss these eccentric little creatures, how you had to look down in order to feel up.

That's the magic that artist David Zinn brings to Ann Arbor. Having lived here his entire adult life, he has been creating street art for most of those years. A University of Michigan grad, he earned his degree in Creative Writing and English Language and Literature but has mostly made his career in illustration and art. 

David sat down with Concentrate to talk about teaching, the state of art, what it's like to be told to stop creating his art, and how we are all artists. 

I have friends who are artists and they say, "Well, I'd like to go back and get certified to teach, but I know I won't get a job because the arts are the first thing to go." How would you make the case for more art in our schools?

I'm going to answer that in a roundabout way, starting by saying that the thing I'm hoping most to achieve by bringing sidewalk art into the classroom is to make art as accessible as possible, especially to the kids who might not think of themselves as artists. I think that kids and adults --including school administrators -- often think of artists as old white guys painting canvasses 200 years ago, and there is so much more to it. So I am trying to break down the walls between art and everyone else—including the people who don't spend their lives doing it, so that they know it is still beneficial even if it isn't your entire career. 

What does one of your workshops look like?

The first question I ask in these workshops is who considers him or herself to be an artist. The youngest kids, almost 100 percent, raise their hands. But I'm willing to bet that as you get older, fewer and fewer people will raise their hands. With older kids, I will ask how many of them doodle while doing homework or while on the phone and then almost everyone raises their hands. That's when I can point out that there is no difference at all between doodling and being an artist… that the doodling counts. 
Has anyone ever walked up to you and not understood what you were doing?

I'll be as even-handed as I can about this … at one point, I had a conversation with a police officer who, to his credit, was just checking to make sure that I wasn't doing permanent graffiti. I happened to be in Liberty Plaza, surrounded by Girl Scouts at a town beautification event. The officer told me that city law is specifically written to exempt the use of sidewalk chalk (from city ordinances) because it is not permanent and washes away, so I could keep on doing what I was doing, that it was legal.

This is not true everywhere. I looked it up and found cases of small children being fined by their neighbors. The neighbors' view is that because it is a public space, all the taxpayers pay for that space so if any one of those taxpayers disapproves of what is going on in that public space, then it is an issue. Whereas Ann Arbor says because it's the public space, it belongs to the public and as long as you are on the public space, then you can do art. 

But bear in mind that there are plenty of public sidewalks but not that many public walls and unfortunately, some art just wants to be on a wall. And when I've gotten in trouble it's almost always been because of a wall.

I imagine that's particularly tough because so many walls are on private property.

The problem with private property is that the person who owns the wall usually isn't the person who is running the business in that building. In one instance, these business owners saw me walking by and said, "If you're looking for a place, you can do it right here!" The business owner insisted that I go ahead and do my work. So while I was in the middle of that drawing, a man tapped me on the shoulder and he said, "You're not drawing on this wall…please tell me you're not drawing on my wall." 

It turned out that he was the owner of the building. And we had a civil conversation about how even though he knew what I did and he had seen it around and he knew it washes away in the rain and he knew it was fun for the kids, he knew all of that…but his conviction was that it served as encouragement to permanent graffiti. In his mind, my work made it look like he as a business owner was pro-public graffiti and that others wouldn't notice that it is temporary. That was the first time I ever destroyed my own work.

Has something like that ever happened again?

On the day of Festifools, I was looking for a place I could draw without getting trampled. I remembered that building from before (in the previous incident)…. there is kind of a place where I could draw and not get stepped on. I wouldn't draw on the wall because of what happened before, but I figured since the sidewalk was public, I would draw there. 

So I started drawing, and then I got a tap on my shoulder - same guy. He very politely said, "I hope you're not planning to draw here." I said, "Not on the wall. I'm on the public sidewalk." 

So he said that the way Ann Arbor rules are set up, he as the property owner is required to keep those sidewalks clean. And he pointed to where some kid had dripped his name in paint in front of another business.  

He thinks that what I do leads to graffiti. Now, I think I have some anecdotal evidence that says that by not doing what I do, one actually encourages graffiti. I think that the absence of public art encourages graffiti, and if I do what I do, people will be less likely to drip their name in paint on his sidewalks. 

It's just a philosophical difference … [there are those] that think that downtown can be made more pleasant by scrubbing it down. 

A flying pig and her alien friend make downtown worse?

My fear is that what they are achieving by waging this aggressive battle with graffiti is just going to lead to more of the same—the graffiti appears, so we scrub it off, paint it over, then there's more graffiti, so we scrub it off, paint it over, and so on. 

I am now keeping pictures of embarrassing blank walls in Ann Arbor -- walls where in any other town someone would have put something on them but in this town—nothing. Block after block after block of walls with nothing. I've been in small towns in Indiana with fewer blank walls … yet then we complain about our graffiti problem. 

In a thousand years, I would never think that Sluggo would be controversial.
But, you can see his argument even though you and I don't agree with it. He's a nice man, very pleasant, but he's in war mode and his belief is that my work will lead to kid's dripping paint on his sidewalks, which he will then have to pay to clean up.

But I say, let's try this—let's take these blank walls and put murals on them. Many people believe that it is less likely to get graffiti because most graffiti artists live by a code of honor. Now there will always be some kid who will mess with it, but as far as I know even the SAES kid didn't put stuff on other people's art. But those are the rare exceptions. Tagging tends to go where there isn't already some love. I'd like to risk a little art and see if it makes the tagging go up or down.

So what would it take to do that?! Chatting with local artists it often comes up that the number of places where you can show your art has declined. Does it start with city council or a commission?

The one place where I feel I have had a positive experience is with the Downtown Development Authority (DDA). And that's for the library mural (featuring the iconic scene of Gene Kelly from Singin' in the Rain). That is the one ray of light in my mind. 

I had run into Susan (Pollay, the executive director of the DDA), who mentioned that they had a budget set aside to cover up graffiti. Susan had told me that if I ever wanted to do some art on a parking structure, then I should contact her —they were already buying paint, so she figured they might as well do something to preemptively address graffiti. 

By coincidence, I wanted to take a picture of the blank wall at the parking garage (where the mural later went), but I had a really hard time taking a decent picture because of the street lamp. And then it was one of those moments where everything sort of comes together in your brain where you take what's in your way and realize that you can use it. 

About a week later, I was doing a drawing on the street and Susan came by to chat with me and I said, "I have a crazy idea…."

Two weeks later, the mural was complete.

I had an interview with Bruce Worden, who did the murals in the parking garage, and he had a similar story about the DDA. He said that they didn't need a commission, they didn't need meetings, it just happened.

I'm amazed that we were able to get it out that easily. That's why it's important that I mention this stuff…their attitude is let's make this happen, let's get it done. And that might suggest a potential solution for this particular problem of absence of public art. Things happen best when they just happen.  

Most of the public art you create is temporary in nature. Have you considered lobbying to make it more permanent?

Not until very recently, and only because there is another place in the world where I am going to go do this art if the plans play out. In Sweden, there is a place -Borås- that has decided to make itself the opposite of what we have been talking about. They are going to make a tourist trade around all of the public art that has been created by artists they have invited to come to Borås. I was over the moon to get invited, but I had to tell them that I create art that washes away. They are on board though, and thinking that perhaps it could be done inside so it might last longer. But this whole thing got me thinking of ways it could be done to make it permanent.

I've also been talking to people in Dexter about doing a collection of miniature murals in the town of Dexter. Instead of taking over a huge wall where people will see it and some might want to destroy it, it will be so subtle. 

Like the Fairy Doors!

Right! It's the fairy door principle…if those fairy doors were eight feet tall, someone would have complained about it. The people who might complain though, have probably never noticed them. This would be the same thing—a deliberate treasure hunt type thing. And I find this the more interesting way to see art.
What is your most or least favorite piece of art in Ann Arbor?

Before I answer that, I will tell you that I have assaulted people with a similar type of question—I ask people if they can name three pieces of art in Ann Arbor. My suspicions have been mostly satisfied and that is that most people can only name two.

What is interesting is that even people who could name three almost always referred to Graffiti Alley and unless I'm mistaken, Graffiti Alley is illegal. You can get fined or jailed for adding to what most people consider public art in this city. 

People will reference the authors down by where Borders use to be but almost always the "emery board" (the Dreiseistl water sculpture outside the Municipal Center) in front of our city hall. It is more of an environmental thing, but people don't always know about or focus on that…they focus on the fact that an out-of-town artist came in, did his thing, and then left. 

I think of it this way…if you were going to put art on your fridge, would you rather it be by some famous guy from Germany or by one of your kids? I think if that fountain had been done by some kid who grew up here, would people have hated it so much? No, because it's rude to hate on something that was created by one of your own.

Patti Smith is a freelance writer. Her first book, Images of America: Downtown Ann Arbor, was recently published by Arcadia Publishers. It is available on her website, as well as at bookstores in the Ann Arbor area.

All photos by Doug Coombe.