Zio Ziegler is a young Californian artist with an old soul. Very much a poetic painter, he recently visited London for the Uncommon Thread tour, where we caught up with him while he painted a wall for a commercial project. However much he may embrace the powers that be for funding to enable him to live his life, he remains altruistic and enlightened.
VNA: So tell us a little bit more about your work, where are you from and what kind of influences do you have in your work?
Zio Ziegler: I live in San Francisco right now, I’d say the influences in my work are early Aegean and Egyptian, hieroglyphs and work that is really linear in its creation. Art that exists for art’s sake rather than to have a dialogue with art history. It’s stuff that is to convey allegory and meaning and it comes from the subconscious. I studied painting at school, like classical painting, and there was always a really negative perception towards things without concept, it had to be concept first and then imagery afterwards. I was like “This is terrible because we all have cell phones, we’re sharing aesthetic things and you have to have some sort of aesthetic bite.” You can’t just lay a few bricks into the ground, you can’t just do that anymore as things need a sort of aesthetic punch, in order to get people interested and grab them. And then you can conceptually hold them down and deliver a message. I guess my ethos behind my work was always intuitivism. Following my intuition and my subconscious and letting the image build itself and then sitting back and observing the meaning afterwards.
VNA: So do you find that you have weird subconscious messages that creep out? If you’re like made stressed out or super chilled, does your work take a different dynamic?
ZZ: For sure, it’s always about extractions. My life and my art have no separation; they’re so in sync that I’ll be painting images on walls that precede my awareness of them. Then I step back and I’m like oh my god, this motif at that scale means this and it’s almost like insight into my own future.
VNA: So you are pulling out dreams almost…?
ZZ: Exactly, but I’m almost working faster than my mind works with my hand, and I am just trying to build a vacuum, not think at all. Then the work comes through and I step back like “Oh, that must mean x, y and z. Oh this is the girl I’m into and that’s the symbol of her freedom.” and that’s what I’m painting right now in many ways, because I just start with lines and lines, gestures, and they become dictated by the wall and the ladder height and the paint, they become their own being and I have to shape them into something. It’s just my job to wrestle depth and volume into the figure.
VNA: It’s interesting, I spoke to a guy from Mexico, Peque, a while back, he talked about this same kind of pulling a design out of the wall. He’d look at a wall and just draw down a design from it. His is more character based and traditional b-boy graffiti, wild style and character. How does your work sit with other artists, with other graffiti artists? What kind of reception do you get from people?
ZZ: I don’t know, honestly. I grew up with graffiti as my primary influence. I was never awesome at letters or anything like that but I grew up painting with Krylon, writing in my black book and going on Hi-Fi Art and Art Crimes and all that observing stuff. I always liked the San Francisco illustrators, guys like Mike Giant and Jeremy Fish. I had a really positive reception from both of them which was really astonishing that they were even aware of my art. But it’s cool because I think the form and the shape and the idea of concealing so much in plain sight is my graffiti heritage and also working quickly, I don’t want to come back to a wall for two weeks because if I get it out it feels fresher, it feels like it has more movement. Also trying to learn can control for years and trying to play with all that stuff, I think that a lot of my figures have letter-esque forms that almost contort and bend in the same way that were formed on trains, based out of necessity and different kinks in the metal.
VNA: It’s interesting that you picked up on Mike Giant as well and he has clocked your style as he is very much a graffiti purist, he is very much hard-line graffiti and obviously appreciates letterforms and stuff as well.
ZZ: He’s brilliant and he’s such a purist. He lives exactly the way he says he lives and I have so much respect for him and Jeremy Fish. There were so many artists growing up like Cyrcle and all those guys, that was the stuff that I was copying in my black book, trying to figure out how those guys worked and I used to be, still am a huge fan of Revok and the masters. I went to art school and they were like “Who are your favourite artists” and I think I said “Revok and this and that” and everyone else was like “Caravaggio and Matisse”. Then the classical training came and I was like wow, where is the dynamic between these two worlds. I’ve always aligned myself more with the public art in a big way because there was no reception for my work in school so I was going to just keep doing what I do.
VNA: It’s interesting that you paint so intuitively because I write a bit of poetry and it’s quite similar to throwing up onto a page as sometimes you almost don’t have that much control over it, it’s more like channelling.
ZZ: There’s that Neruda line like “There’s nothing sadder than a train standing alone in the rain” and I think a lot of the times the momentum of painting, or poetry, or writing, its emotion and everything else comes and fills with meaning, automatic drawing. Totally agree with you. My favourite quotes from all literature are always those that are of man conquering nature and nature conquering man. Like from Moby Dick, “What I’ve dared, I’ve willed; and what I’ve willed, I’ll do.” All poets in their own right are all very much slamming into this substance of paper.
VNA: Yeah one of my friends is quite a prolific writer, Alex Preston, and I read an interview where he was speaking about the removal he experiences when typing on a computer and how much more connected he was with pencil to paper, just flowing.
ZZ: David Foster Wallace wrote all of his books longhand and I don’t think those could have been written any other way with footnotes and this and that. He’s my favourite mind I think, of all contemporary writers, a dead contemporary writer unfortunately. I spend a long time naming my pieces after works of Shakespeare, the line that runs most through my head nowadays is “Heavy is the head that wears the crown.” Have you read ‘I, Claudius’? In the beginning it talks about Augustus and it says “Augustus ruled Rome but Lydia ruled Augustus.” And it’s cool when you’ve read all this literature and your life becomes a composite of quotes and fragments that you cannot remember the book or the heritage of, but they just come into your mind at the right time. That’s my favourite thing about some art and some stories, some music, is when they take the consciousness of structure and they break it and fragment it in so many ways that you wait and wait and wait for the expected and it never comes. Like looking at a different piece and there no… Even like a lot of Arthur Conan Doyle stuff, it’s just so backwards and tilted upside down but there’s enough homage to structure, especially in certain paintings too, like Conor Harrington, for instance. The deconstructed Richter with classical paintings is a great composite.
VNA: So do you feel your work is kind of like a certain timeline on a larger thing? A larger scale?
ZZ: Totally, it’s not cohesive in any way. The work is more dialectical than anything else, with a little growth here and there. I’m constantly drawing, one day I remember I became less self-conscious and I was like, holy shit, I can actually draw in public at a café, because before it had to be something. It was like a means to an end and now it is like a means in itself, to sanity and happiness and excavating the human condition or whatever. I think in a big way I tried to put together all these shows as a lot of my work is studio based, it’s back and forth and back and forth but when I get to making a cohesive body of work I get two paintings deep and I am like “This is boring I wanna try something new” and I want to go tactile. I made all these byzantine gold ground religious paintings and I was like “This is fun but I don’t want to do this anymore.” So I went to the other one and back, I think that the best thing is for me to play on this spectrum but the motifs continue, they prevail through all of the work, it’s the same motifs, the same characters but maybe on different allegories.
VNA: Do you see that as little chapters in a book of your own?
ZZ: I’ve never had that meta-perspective on my work until recently when I was on a flight from London to New York, and there was a girl sitting next to me who was really pretty and I wanted to impress her so I whipped open my sketchbook and I made 50 drawings one after the other, fluid, and it started this whole new style. I think a lot of my style comes out of necessity, I’ll be on a wall and I’ll be impressing girls! Or I’ll be on a wall and trying not to be an idiot, I’ll make a huge mistake and I’ll be like “That was supposed to be a tiger!” But I’ve learned that mistakes and opportunity go hand in hand. Recently a lot of my paintings, If I think too much about relativity and cautiousness I psych myself out. And if I think too much about who I am or where I am in the art world… It doesn’t matter, what matters is if there is a sort of coherent resonance when you have finished the work, honestly I make work out of necessity, to understand myself or to understand a relationship or to impress a girl or to get myself to look at the human condition in a new way so I think those things cling to me in a visceral way rather than the other way round, I can’t cling to it.
VNA: Obviously you work in collaborative projects, do you work with other artists a lot?
ZZ: I really like working with artists I admire a lot, like I did a piece with Nicolas Santiago in Bushwick and he’s one of my favourite artists of all time. I think he’s brilliant in the way that he renders on a large scale and works with a pattern and looseness. I totally envy those marks and I think it’s awesome. I haven’t worked with JAZ but I really like his work and those two are really dynamic and fresh. I work with Jeremy Fish sometimes and were going to do a collaborative wall, we do some drawings here and there. There’s skateboarding crews too, I’ve done a lot of collaborative projects, I just don’t know where I belong. I like people regardless of station or style but if they have a good vibe about them I’ll want to work with them in whatever way I can. I’ve been lucky to work with some of the artists that I really, really look up to and admire. Musicians and filmmakers or writers, whatever, I just want to take my brain and put it in a different field every once in a while.
VNA: Cool, and obviously you’ve done projects for companies, there was the side of the building you did for Pilgrim in Williamsburg too.
ZZ: I try to look at opportunities, and this might sound strange, but my whole axis of belief now in art is “Vox Populi, Vox Dei”, “the voice of the people is the voice of god” because I think the art world in the sort of institution is quite antiquated in the way it works right now, there is so much vast talent in it and potency coming out of the streets, coming with no degree and no qualifications and residencies, or whatever, no MFA’s and that is the work that has fought its way to the forefront of the facility through cell phones. So the way I look at any sort of collaboration or product is I am selective with the opportunities that I have but also like working with Stance or Vans or whatever, I just look at it as an opportunity to try my hand at something new and fresh. If I make a product, I think we live in such a globalised market now that you’re not devaluing your work, you’re just putting a new tier on it and in paintings, I think all street artists make their own work, it’s one or two assistants here or there but it’s not like Damien Hirst where they are handing off to assistants, they’re not handing it off, it’s like the soul of the artist, but they also do products, sometimes corporate and sometimes non corporate. I think as long as your value systems align you can look at it as the meta-model, you’re just taking different patrons and different aspects of life and allowing your audience to grow and allowing more people to be influenced by your work.
VNA: Tell us a little more about what you’re doing with Stance and the ideas behind that.
ZZ: I work with a gallery in Laguna Beach and we did a show and then Russ Pope, the dude from Vans who I just flying emailed one day many years ago, was very kind to me and kind of inducted me into that. He introduced me to the people with the gallery and the gallery introduced me to Stance. Stance is building a really cool, fresh model I think. It’s a sock but it’s not necessarily a sock. It’s like Redbull, it’s an excuse to sell a product that helps people design and simultaneously gives artists and creatives an opportunity to travel the world and make things in the way they do. Sure it’s cool, I love wearing fancy socks, but it’s not about that it’s about getting to travel with writers, musicians and other artists and filmmakers, have cool conversations and engage in projects without having to worry about an entry barrier. I think the sock can serve as the thing that facilitates all that. I think we just have to examine it in not such a… The art world seems to function in a very… No products, no this, no that. I think it’s now about the more people you can impact with your work; the more lives you can change, the more kids you can inspire to be artists, at whatever cost. And if a sock is that then a sock is that and it’s cool, and socks are wonderful. But I’m here for the people, I’m here to paint a wall and hopefully have an impact.
Zio Ziegler is a part of STANCE’s Punks & Poets. For more information, check out www.stance.com. You can also check out more of Zio’s work online here: