Interview Series: Zio Ziegler

I first saw a Zio Ziegler mural on Divisadero St. in the NOPA district of San Francisco. The lines and figures were mezmerizing, huge contours dipped and collided to form his tribal-like figures, defined by precise shapes and patterns, mostly in black paint. I remember coming from dinner that night and his mural shone under the street lamp, almost jumping off the wall. And over on the top right side read Zio Ziegler in small black letters. I never forgot that name.

I first met Zio on a way on my way to an interview for a photography job. I immediately recognized the work and stopped for a second to watch him paint while he jammed to his headphones beneath his spray paint mask. Under time constrictions, I had to jet, so I crossed my fingers and hoped he was still here upon return. And he was. I took a few pics with my phone and practically tackled him to get his attention. We chatted for a second, I asked him for an interview and explained that FAST was the moniker for fashion, art, sex and travel. His response? Will I make it into the sex section? It was a joke of course, but alas I got the interview from the jet-setting street artist, who is currently doing a month-long art stay in Italy. Check out my two Instagram pics of Zio from that day below and have a good read (he’s quite the philosopher):

F: You talk about your own human condition as a vehicle for your work. Did this insight come to you at a young age?

ZZ: I did not, for the longest time I did not want to be an artist because of the expectations that came with it. I communicated from a young age in a visual way, from drawing girls names in wildstyle in middle school, to the t-shirts for the high school sports teams, once people know you’re an artist, they expect you to be their kind of artist. Almost expect you to produce work that is both representational and at a high quality consistently.  I could do neither, and after a while I felt nerve racked and hesitant to draw in public. I began to hide my sketchbook when I was drawing in a class, or else, I would draw something I knew how to draw. Something that I knew would work out in a resolved fashion. It wasn’t until many years later that I let go of that feeling and just created from instinct. And when that barrier came down, I felt like an artist again, someone who could explore his own condition as a microcosm of the world. To search for universals through a series of mistakes, and to cast away expectation and wander. In a subconscious way I think its why I paint walls today without bringing the materials to cover them up. It’s a full commitment without any return that makes me grow. By just showing up with black paint and no plan, I have no option but to make it work, to try something new and adapt to the space, to pivot to change and embrace the mistakes, and with this I can create in public now.

Self Consciousness is the enemy in painting, I am not talking about being self critical, rather to timid about mistakes. This is the sort of vehicle I like, and also struggle to stay on. Once you say you are the painter who hopes to transform his mistakes into opportunities, it becomes a zen experience where you can only exist in the present. When I succeed occasionally on pushing through a mistake and allowing to see it as something that positively impacted my work, I think that is quite proximate to the resilience of the spirit and the human condition. The true trial and error format of evolution. And, in an eastern way, I think I only discovered the edge of this phenomena through the contrast of self consciousness, so as the light becomes lighter, so can the dark gain new dimension as well.

LF: “I paint how I feel, not how I see” – can you dive into this a little bit?

ZZ: Sure. I could go off on a tangent about psychological portraiture, about transference and things coming through via a sort of osmosis, but I think the essential response is that I don’t always feel this way. Just the other day I was sitting up on a hill in Tuscany, thinking to myself that I am sick of painting how I feel, and now, I would like to paint from what I see. I will swear by one way of making on day, and another the next. The only honesty is that art is contradiction, It’s a wandering path, dropping things you swore by and then picking them up again. The frightening thing is that we all have our way of viewing the world, it is what makes us original and we cannot easily escape it. Sure all the world may be a stage, however, when you are acting you know you are acting and if art is all about letting go, about pushing the binary human condition and getting rid of the grey area, then one is left with something quite dialectical. I think the power in art is that as creators we are not forced to be linear. Yes, the market often wants you to be, and I think that’s why so many greats are born from rejection. Because with societal rejection can come of negation of sumptuary laws, a disregard for trends and a more proximate experience to searching for your internal vision, your a priori.

So yes, I paint from both. I experience the world from both, feeling, emotion, volatility is more honest than the strict rules of representation. I love changing, defying expectations. Doing what I want and not being held to anything. I don’t want to feel like the kid that couldn’t draw in public anymore, I want to trust myself, my hand, my differences and my context, for me this is painting what I feel. It’s painting with your mind shut off, with your expectations collapsed, its like automatic drawing, but It’s more like water. The second you try to hold water in your hands, to stop of slow on cling, its gone, but if you just watch it move, be next to it, in it, moved by it, then you’re in a current you can’t control. When you paint how you feel it is similar to the later. It’s capricious, sometimes you cling to a rock, somethings you’ve drifted too far from structure, but it is honest and with murals- it’s the only way I can make them.

As for painting how you see, seeing is believing, and believing is expecting. It’s clinging to a “known truth” in a ephemeral world. But right now I am attracted to it because I need to push one extreme so that I can re enter the other. So I was sitting there, on the hillside in Tuscany, doing a watercolor of the landscape, and about 50 minutes in, I began to paint my interpretation of that landscape as a figure on opposing page, and then on the next page, came another landscape but this time it was in the figure, and then after that It was pattern, and a landscape on top and figures within, and then I stepped back and realized the figures where searching for something, they where looking for what I was looking for, and on the next page they found it.  When art mirrors life, through whatever tools necessary, I think it inevitably feels right. And having written this, I have a feeling, and from that, maybe a painting. Everything as in physics has its equal and opposite reaction, it’s just letting self consciousness go to the point where you can embrace that sort of volatility and capture it in pigment.

LF: You’re heavy into philosophy. Where does this stem from? Is this an influence from your parents?

ZZ: Absolutely. My dad loves Eastern thought and that was contagious.

LF: Where can we currently see some of your work on the street?

ZZ: San Francisco, Milan, Puerto Rico, Los Angeles, New York, Las Vegas etc.

LF: How did the tribal figures make their way into your aesthetic?

ZZ: It’s actually just the way that I draw, the references to tribal figures, modernism and primitivism where not conscious initially. When I stopped worrying about representation, lines just needed other lines, and those needed depth and structure, and then the figures just became gestural representations of emotions.

LF: When you start with a blank canvas, what is your thought process?

ZZ: If I have a great book that I am reading, I often will have a great painting. I listen to audio books while I paint, and I try not to think about the work, but rather the text. It begins with gestures, and movement. And after a few minutes it needs balance, and then once you answer to balance it needs depth. The painting takes on a life of its own, and then demands things from you, and it’s your responsibility to both listen to it and push it out of its comfort zone. I think I often want my work to evolve faster than It is ready for, so some paintings have an urgency while others have a decadence. You can see how ready I am for progress based on that.  I often have 3 or 4 works in progress at once, often in varying styles and with different emotional pitches. Then I’ll break the studio process up with a mural here and there.

LF: What’s your take on the graffiti scene in SF?

ZZ: I don’t know much about it currently, but I grew up spending all of my time on, and studying letters from pieces by  the great Bay Area writers and others from around the world.

LF: You’ve mentioned that “I force myself to paint fast on the street – keeping all murals to a day in length maximum.” What are the benefits but also challenges of this?

ZZ: This used to be the case, sometimes a wall will take 6 days or so if it is gigantic, such as the one in downtown Las Vegas. I like to be hyper focused so I can be responsive to the painting, to adapt and pivot should that be the case. Also there is a kairos in the world, an intuition of the moment that comes when you are present, and also a movement that the viewer can experience when viewing something made with boldness and speed. The honesty comes through in a fresher way if the work is made is a instinctual way.

LF: In addition to the abundant amount of artwork your produce, you also run an apparel company called Art Sempre and a tech start-up called Weekend Swap. How do you find the time to keep up with it all?

ZZ: I have a terrible social life.

LF: Can you tell us a little about Art SEmpre and Weekend Swap?

ZZ: Arte Sempre was started in order to make my work more accessible to the public. I love leveraging my images onto different things, sometimes designing t shirts, sometimes hats, so it’s  a fun balance of expressions in different modes. As for Weekend Swap, I started that with a great friend of mine from school as a passion project in order to share outdoor gear in different communities we spent time in.

LF: What do you do for fun?

ZZ: Paint. Draw. Ride Bikes. Eat Burritos. Explore.

LF: You’re a Mill Valley native and still reside there. Any aspirations to leave the Bay and explore other areas of the world?

ZZ: I love Mill Valley. Yes, I love traveling, and painting walls in new places, I am currently in Italy and have been here for a month, so my English is terrible right now, but my pasta consumption skills are phenomenal. Who knows how long I will stay. Next up, Tokyo.

LF: What gets you off, literally or figuratively?


LF: How FAST do you live?

ZZ: Let’s just say I get a lot of speeding tickets.

(All photos courtesy of Zio Ziegler except the above-mentioned Instagram images)

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