This Chalk Artist Transforms Concrete Into A Whimsical Fantasy World

“I have usually, at all times, one piece of chalk in my pocket, and one piece of charcoal behind my ear,” David Zinn says. “And that’s all that I need to make a piece of art.”

The Michigan-based street artist spends the summer months crouching over pieces of sidewalk creating elaborate chalk masterpieces. It’s work that is based in schoolhouse simplicity.

“Chalk,” he says, “is the least intimidating art form there is.”

Everyone has scribbled on the sidewalk at some point. It’s the medium of the long, hot summer day. Placing a bit of color on a blank, slab of concrete is a childhood rite of passage. It just so happens to be one that Zinn never quite grew out of.

“Some places just really want to be drawn on,” he says with a laugh.

Zinn sees creatures and patterns everywhere, and it draws him to create whimsical works of art that set out to delight rather than upset or evoke deep, dark emotions. Not that he’s against “heavy” art. But with his own creations, his goals are straightforward: He wants to infuse art into people’s everyday lives. With Zinn’s pieces, passers by don’t need to be in a special art appreciation mode. All they have to do is look down, take in the world around them, and be treated to a little bit of sunshine, right there on the concrete.

Zinn knows, when he sets out to create a piece, that his hours of work will wash away with the first inkling of rain, but he’s okay with that. In fact, he finds that impermanence exciting. Even more so than other mediums of street art expression — because there’s no guarantee that anyone will get a chance to appreciate Zinn’s art before it’s gone. So the people who do stumble upon his work (before it fades or is shuffled upon and ruined) are sharing a little piece of him by pure chance. There’s a thrill to that for Zinn — the excitement of knowing that only a small group of the population will experience something special that he made, and then it will be gone. A happy memory that stands out in the course of a person’s otherwise mundane day.

Still, as joyful as Zinn’s work is, it’s not all sunshine. Fear, he says, has been a constant that’s held him back from creating. Fear that he’s not good enough, that he’s not a real artist, fear of a blank canvas. But he fights through these fears. It’s something he’s passionate about conveying to other people, especially kids. Everyone’s afraid they won’t be good enough but it’s pushing past those fears that make you an artist.

“It’s hard to have faith that the mark you’re about to make, which will permanently de-blank this canvas, is going to be the best mark,” he says.

Over the years, Zinn has learned to trust his approach, and his work is the result. It just makes you smile. His pieces cause you to feel like there’s only a thin barrier that separates our world from magic. If only we could peer through the cracks, we would see dragons soaring through the sky or lovable monsters throwing a birthday party. And in some ways, that’s what his art is reminding us of. Magic. Because while maybe there aren’t actual mythical, magical creatures lurking just beneath the sidewalk, there is a kind of magic and beauty all around us. David Zinn’s art is a reminder to pull ourselves away from our phones and look around more. If we do, we might see the whimsy in everyday life, the people and spaces making the world a more beautiful place, and maybe, if we’re really lucky, every once in awhile we’ll spot a dragon out of the corner of our eyes.

I spoke with David recently, and we chatted about his work, the fun of getting to play with chalk as a job, and how one can get past their own fears to create the lives that they want.

What’s your background or training as an artist?

My training is actually not in art. I was a commercial freelance artist for many years, but that came more as a result of being a compulsive doodler and shy person. I spent so much of my childhood, my high school, and college years drawing pictures to avoid eye contact. People began to ask me if I would draw stuff for them, and I eventually was convinced that doing so was not as scary as it sounded.

But if we’re going all the way back, the full truth of it is that I was raised about 17 miles north of Ann Arbor, on a lake with a dirt road and no sidewalks for as far as the eye could see. So all this drawing on the sidewalk might just be making up for lost time.

How do you find a location for a drawing? Do you pick spaces out ahead of time or are you constantly just stopping in the middle of a walk to draw a creature on the street?

Oh, yeah. Luckily my friends and family have gotten pretty used to the unpredictability of it. I’m still pretty good at showing up places where I’m supposed to show up. But when I’m walking with the people who know me best, they’ve gotten used to the idea that they might suddenly have me not there anymore because I saw a piece of sidewalk. I won’t draw right then necessarily because I try to give real people precedence over my imaginary friends, but I need to go back and make note of it so that I find it later. Some places just really want to be drawn on. It’s hard not to give them that.

What draws you to a particular piece of concrete?

Well, the process has a name, which I enjoy talking to kids about because it gives them a word that no grownups know. It sounds like a Harry Potter spell but it’s an actual scientific name called pareidolia, which is just a fancy name to explain why you see shapes in clouds. It’s why that cloud looks like a dog, it’s why that tree looks like it has a face. I don’t want to step on any religious toes, but it’s why people see the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast.

Our brains don’t like random data. Which is great because the sidewalk is full of random steps and streaks and marks that are guaranteed to start to look like something if you take the time to stare at them long enough. Some of them just jump out.

A lot of what held me back as a serious artist was that I thought that serious artists didn’t wrestle with the fear of the blank canvas. That even though, in theory, a perfectly blank, white space should be the perfect environment for free creation, it’s actually a little too free. I’ve been reassured to learn, now that I mostly draw in public and have a lot of conversations with people about art, that both serious artists and people who don’t think they’re artists have the same reaction to the excessive freedom of a blank space. There’s too many options, there’s too many choices to be made.

What about a blank space scares you?

It’s hard to have faith that the mark you’re about to make, which will permanently de-blank this canvas, is going to be the best mark. Maybe you should rethink it? Maybe there’s a different mark you should make instead because you can’t go back. It’ll never be blank again. I think a lot of people decide, “Oh, this is so stressful.” So you let someone else make a mark on the blank canvas.

Even though I loved to draw as a kid, it was a problem to get past that feeling of “Eh, I don’t know whether I should actually do this or not.” My brother and I, I think as part of harassing our favorite uncle who is an artist, discovered a work-around for the blank canvas, which was this game we called “Doodle Battle.” Which I know call the “Scribble and Swap.” Where we each start with a blank piece of paper and then instead of facing the indecision of what to draw, we would each do a completely random scribble.

The challenge of the battle was that now the other person had to try to make something out of that completely random scribble. So it was like a big competition game, like “Ha ha ha, I bet you can’t make something out of this.” But it also, though we didn’t think of it this way, it had the benefit of making that piece of paper no longer blank, limiting the options of all the things you could draw on that space to only the things which would make something out of this scribble.

Then, purely by accident, because I wanted to be outside on a nice day instead of just sitting at my computer doing another illustration about number 2 plastic, I found out that the sidewalk is exactly like the piece of paper that someone else has already scribbled on. It’s got all this stuff already on it and all you have to do is connect the dots.

Now that you have a book out and have gotten attention as an artist, do you feel more like a serious artist than you used to? Has some of that fear gone away?

It’s still unsettling. But I try to avoid anything that feels like “serious” art. I don’t think it helps to feel serious about art. Especially with the art that I do. It could be very legitimately said, though no one’s been this cruel to my face yet, that art is art because someone doesn’t like it or has a problem with it, and that I might not qualify as a serious artist because I am in, what seems to be a minority of people, who actually wants to make cheerful art. Which is not to say that I don’t have any unresolved personal dark issues that need to be resolved. It’s just that I find it most helpful to deal with my inner darkness by drawing on the ground cheerful things that I wish actually existed in the world. That’s pretty much what’s been driving me the whole time. The fact that it seems to cheer other people up is just a lucky coincidence. I’m not nearly that benevolent.

Do you ever stick around a spot to watch people’s reactions?

No, not as a rule. I think the one time that I happened to walk a few steps away in order to be able to sit down on a ledge to put all the chalk back in the chalk box, I got treated to the view of someone walking down the street, and then, by pure coincidence, pausing to make a phone call while standing directly on the face of what I’d just drawn. It represented no malice. It wasn’t deliberately rude. People just surprisingly don’t look down at the ground while they walk.

One of the reasons to leave is that if I’m still there, it changes people’s experience of the art. I mean, for one thing, a lot more people are going to notice what’s on the ground when there’s someone crouching next to it. It’s a strange spectacle.

What I like about street art in general, and what I really like about what I do, is that what I put on the street doesn’t wait for you to be in art appreciation mode before you see it. Ideally, it sneaks up on you. And as a result, it is able to insert itself into your everyday life. You happened to look down at one point and there was something looking up at you from the ground. If I’m very lucky, maybe at least one person who sees it before it washes away, will have this brief moment where they think that something is actually happening that’s specifically for them. That this creature is there specifically for them to see.

You create a connection with a person. You’ll never meet them, but you’re bringing them this little gift.

It’s an interesting little poetic irony that if I’m standing next to it, that’s not going to happen. So in order for that to happen I have to just walk away and have faith that it will happen. I actually did have a friend once who, years before we met, was walking down my street and saw one of the first things I ever drew. She and her brother had a major conversation, like, “Why is this here? That’s so strange. That’s awesome that someone would bother to do this completely pointless thing so that we could see it.” And it was the pointlessness and the randomness of it, which made it such an interesting day for them.

People think that the washing away and the leaving behind is very sad, but it’s really the key to the enjoyment of it that I don’t get a chance to explain.

How long does it usually take for you to do one of your creations?

It’s a good idea to not have any place I need to be for at least two hours because even a really small drawing can take as much as two hours to really feel like you spent some quality time with it. Part of it is the improvisation of it. If you don’t know what you’re going to draw until it asks to be drawn, there are a lot of mistakes. So one of the nice things about chalk is that it’s easy to fix mistakes. Sometimes that started out as a porcupine can decide halfway through it wants to be a dolphin. So you have to decide whether to roll with that or to go with half-porcupine, half-dolphin.

There’s a feeling of letting go in your art. It’s so impermanent. Do you ever want to start selling art or do a gallery show?

I’ve a really bad habit of just saying yes to things that happen. Actually, that in itself is an achievement because my knee-jerk reaction is to say no to everything that happens. Luckily, I’ve trained myself to push past the initial no. So, there have been opportunities that come along. And I’ve been surprised actually, and clearly other people were surprised too, that I can make a living doing something so impractical. But there’s actually several ways to actually sell this art. I do commissions for people. I do workshops and visit schools and demonstrate how I draw and help other kids draw what they want to draw. I feel pretty strongly about that.

I think more people making art, whether they think of themselves as artists or not, is a good thing. It does good things to your brain, to use that part of your head. So there are ways that I made it my job. So far putting things in a gallery has been the hardest avenue to consider just because of many of the things I said earlier in this conversation about the way we usually experience art in galleries. The galleries and museums seem very separate from our real lives. It’s hard to give up the feeling of being able to put your art right in someone’s life, instead of in a special place that they go to on a special occasion to react the way they think is appropriate to a piece of art. So I’m not saying it’s never going to happen but if you see it happening, you’ll know that I’m going to be a little bit verklempt about the idea.

That would represent a little bit of sadness.

There’ll be some angst somewhere.