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If you’ve driven around San Francisco, chances are you’ve seen one of the murals painted by Mill Valley artist Zio Ziegler. His elaborate tribal patterns and giant mythical figures adorn what would often otherwise be barren walls. The 28-year-old even has his own line of Vans. The Culture Trip chatted with the artist to tell his incredible success story.
It starts with a wall. It could be a warehouse or a parking lot. But to Zio Ziegler, it’s a canvas.
He brings only black paint and has no plan in mind. Any mistake he makes, he must incorporate into the artwork. There’s no turning back.
Soon, the wall is covered with mythical creatures in black and white tribal patterns, sometimes painted on colorful backgrounds. To Ziegler, the creatures are blank slates, just like the walls he paints on.
‘The goal of those figures was painting tabula rasa as figures…it could really represent any culture or any individual. I wanted everyone to see themselves or a part of themselves in that, hence all the pattern. It represented a myriad of cultures.’
Painting the creatures in just black and white is a form of simplification, he says, a way to focus in just on the figure without worrying about anything else.
‘[They] sort of became my mandalas, where I would get lost in the intricacy in order to think about things in my life and meditate on the concept,’ Ziegler said.
Growing up, Ziegler was heavily influenced by aboriginal sculptures and artifacts from Africa, Asia and Australia that his parents, the founders of Banana Republic, brought back from their travels. He even took an Egyptology class in college. But with all that background knowledge, he still comes up with every pattern himself.
‘I want it to represent the way that my brain works, which I think is in smaller bursts of thought that are then stitched together in a bigger idea,’ Ziegler said. ‘Although they look random in the beginning, hopefully, they look cohesive in the end.’
Ziegler may only be 28 years old, but he’s had the commercial success few artists ever see in a lifetime. He’s painted 40 murals across the city of San Francisco and at the headquarters of companies like Facebook, Lyft, and Google.
His unique style has come a long way since attending art school at the Rhode Island School of Design.
‘They enforce this structure in terms of how you have to learn before you assume style,’ Ziegler said.
One day, he was sitting in a café and started doodling a random figure and let go of that enforced structure. That’s when everything changed.
‘I stopped trying to draw like I was trying to draw,’ he said.
Ziegler was a philosophy major at Brown University, and it shows through in his artwork. Rather than have a meaning or a theme for his pieces, he wants viewers to decide.
‘What I became fascinated with was the fact that human beings in seeing pieces of art have the ability to project into that work – they’re free associating with it,’ he said.
While many artists flock to burgeoning art communities in cities like New York City or San Francisco, Ziegler has lived in both and decided to settle back in his hometown of Mill Valley, located in Marin County just about ten minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge.
‘I’m not one for urban life really,’ Ziegler said. ‘I don’t do much on a Friday night except for paint…Mill Valley is fantastic; there’s not many distractions [and], there’s not much to do besides ride bikes and make art.’
The inspiration for Ziegler’s art is changing all the time, but one thing remains constant: literature plays a role, often subconsciously. Rather than listening to music while he paints, he listens to audiobooks.
‘I want to paint as though I were a novelist or a poet,’ said Ziegler. ‘To paint in a way where you have many different intonations with the way things are expressed: subtext, allegory.’
Yet Ziegler doesn’t have a specific meaning intended for his art – he works with the undefinable. In a world changing faster than ever before with technological innovation, he wants his pieces to be timeless, ‘open-source hieroglyphs.’
‘In a way I’m throwing up my hands as an artist and saying, I don’t want to be the man behind the art; I want the art to move through culture and stand without context,’ he said.
It is perhaps a strange thought that in the future our artwork could become relics like hieroglyphics, our soon-to-be antiquated technology analyzed by historians. And that is why Ziegler says today’s technology companies, which will eventually become obsolete, should sponsor the arts.
But Ziegler has shifted his focus from the murals that made him famous to a new craft: sculpture. Though his murals afforded him the opportunity to travel the world, he spent most of his long days on the scaffold painting. Once back in his Mill Valley studio, he began experimenting with clay.
‘It felt like playing again; there was no responsibility in terms of making art,’ he said. ‘It’s like if I were to start writing or making music; it became an entirely free terrain because I’m so uneducated in sculpture.’
Ziegler is currently channeling most of his efforts into a show opening in the fall of 2016 at San Francisco’s Jules Maeght Gallery that will include eight sculptures and a series of large paintings.