Zio Ziegler

muralist, Painter, SF/Mill Valley // March 2013
I spend more time in my studio than anywhere else. It’s in absolute chaos, but I am always surprised by what I find in the mess... It’s a primordial soup of possibility— we will see what comes out.

Zio is nothing if not prolific. I’m not sure when he sleeps or if he actually does because he is constantly churning out new work. I wouldn’t necessarily call the rate at which Zio makes work manic, but it’s something close to that term— yet there is a steadiness to it; an ever-present level of enthusiasm that doesn’t seem to wane or go wayward. I’m inclined to assume that much of Zio’s exuberance is a symptom of his youth, and though I do think this to be true to some degree, it wouldn’t be entirely fair to chalk it up to just that. A more deliberate determination resides beneath his fevered, seemingly spontaneous productivity, and this determination reveals his ambition. I think as an artist, Zio wants a lot out of life— big things, far and wide things, the stuff of dreams— and he’s working like a madman to get there.

Zio has both a studio and street practice where he creates bold paintings and murals with a distinct tribal-like aesthetic. His paintings are often more colorful than his monochromatic murals but in all his work there are the repeated motifs of primitive patterns, gigantism, and distortion. We visited two of his murals in San Francisco, one on Harrison Street at 5th and the other on Sycamore Street at Mission, both of which are hard to miss. His Mill Valley studio is not just a room, but an entire house filled with finished and unfinished paintings. Walking in for the first time is quite the experience; there is so much to look at, and everything is bright and big and, again, demands your attention. Graffiti has greatly influenced Zio’s mural work as well as his studio practice, he says he likes the idea of “having the boldest spot, an interesting and provocative surface, the most visual traffic, and the fastest read for a piece while still maintaining complexity…”. Zio’s approach is raw and brazen, intuitive and gestural. He leans on instinct readily, working without much of a plan or conscious awareness of content… I suppose almost like the storybook notion of ‘the inspired artist.’ But he acknowledges that this approach has its glitches too, one of them being that he finds it difficult to examine and articulate what his work is about, saying, “It often takes me a while to understand why I’ve painted what I painted… To understand their meaning I have to understand the context in which they were created, which often proves hard because it means understanding myself.”

What mediums do you work with?
I work in painting primarily. Sometimes I’ll use power tools to see what happens, or paint on found objects, but for the most part it’s all acrylic, oil and house paint on any surface that is blank or interesting.

How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
It often takes me a while to understand why I’ve painted what I painted. I believe that the subject matter of the paintings is somewhat allegorical, and partially subconscious. I tend to work with the same motifs time and time again, and as they change context, scale and prominence- their meaning differs. I’ve always been a fan of symbolism throughout visual history and the weight it carries, everything from Egyptian art to Dada- and how the same icons can be present in myriad periods but carry different interpretations based on their settings. For me it’s the same thing, the personal context is ephemeral, the symbols are my attempt to convey an idea but my use of them consistently precedes my understanding. To understand their meaning I have to understand the context in which they were created, which often proves hard because it means understanding myself.

Sometimes it’s far simpler though- for example I like to use symbolism from my favorite books, and then give a clue away in the title.

Besides creating work in the studio, public murals are a big part of your practice— how do you go about finding and choosing the locations for your murals?
A lot of my early influence in art came from graffiti. The idea of having the boldest spot, an interesting and provocative surface, the most visual traffic, and the fastest read for a piece while still maintaining complexity that doesn’t disappoint under scrutiny. I choose my spots with the same ideas in mind, but place an emphasis on the surface. I like walls that ask for movement, buildings that demand characters and life, prompt new ideas, and force initially uncomfortable visual solutions. This criterion helps my work progress, and hopefully brings energy and thought to our surroundings— a way to work within the urban context while simultaneously disrupting it.

I look for walls that will have the traffic and the audience, but also ones that have the framework for a figure or scene that I’m yet to think of. At the end of the day- I can find a way to relate to any wall.

What are the ways in which your studio and “street” process differ?
I’ve found both practices merging over the past few months, but they still carry different meanings to me. The street practice is reactive; it brings what I read and am inspired by in, mixes it with a new surface, and forces me to act quickly and confidently. It’s large and gestural, and extends the anatomy of the body, and often questions or reflects upon the social or urban context. The figures I paint on the street are instinctual, their anatomy comes from the movements that my body has to make in order to create them. They are an extension of myself, and embody the emphasis of motion rather than the “perfection” of stagnation.

I force myself to paint fast on the street- keeping all murals to a day in length maximum- so that the intuition stays fresh, and the “mistakes” become new explorations. These ideas carry across into the studio, but the work changes from large and mostly monochromatic, to moderately sized and intensely colorful. The timeline extends, too. I listen to audio books while I paint, so the more time I spend lost in a canvas the more I get to read. I think of the work in the studio as peaceful, while the murals are active. However I ask the opposite from the viewer in each— with the studio work, the viewer is asked to be active in decoding it, while the street work is intended to bring peace to the viewer through the overwhelming scale and relative simplicity.

There is a tribal (and almost mythical) quality to your work—why is this aesthetic relevant to you?
I grew up surrounded by nature. My parents’ house has African masks and aboriginal sculptures and paintings throughout so those forms and that kind of aesthetic is familiar. But I began to use art in a tribal way, or at least a way of reflecting my human condition when school began. Somehow it was my way of understanding a world far larger than myself, far more “complex” than nature, and so I began turning experiences into images. In the same way I had played with Legos as a child, I began to compile experiences and visuals to construct images that reflected the conflicts and interactions between society and self. It was a way to translate a world. The masks and mythology (and even playing with Legos) serve as honest expressions and reminders of a non-self conscious place. The more my work is like this the more representative of me it will be.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
I have a few jobs. I have a small clothing company named Arte Sempre that is for both men and women and includes hats, shoes, shirts, hoodies, dresses, etc. It allows me to make my work accessible to the world through garments. I often take quotes from what I’m inspired by and create illustrated graphics and use the same textile patterns that I create in my paintings. I’ve done two pop-up stores / galleries with Arte Sempre in Marin, and am planning on opening another in San Francisco this year. I also have open drawing nights, film screenings, and offer asylum for all street artists running from the law.

I also teach sometimes. Last year I taught a second grade art class, which was awesome. I’d like to continue teaching in this way.

And lastly, I have two small tech startups— one is called Weekend Swap, which is a community marketplace for outdoor gear, and the other is an application that helps you tell stories, share experiences and create micro travel guides for your friends.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your studio work for you?
I spend more time in my studio than anywhere else. It’s in absolute chaos, but I am always surprised by what I find in the mess. It’s as simple as picking up a tube of paint that I had no idea was there, or finding a drawing from years ago that inspires a new series. It’s a primordial soup of possibility— we will see what comes out.

What are you presently inspired by— are there particular things you are reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
I am heavily influenced by Eastern philosophy, French modernism, Egyptology, Xavier Veilhan’s work, Rodin, Thomas Houseago, Eddy Martinez and Georges Braque right now. I am reading Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, some Sherlock Holmes, and The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas. In art I look for raw expression, gigantism, and searching marks— something that looks like it has a novel perspective and that makes me stop in my tracks and then holds me there in rapture. I look for the same things in art that I was initially influenced by in graffiti: an original voice, a beautiful impact, and a dynamism that makes a piece a starting place rather than a destination.

As for literature, I love anything I can get lost in— books that allow me to take my mind off my paintings while I make them or make me run back to my notebook and write down brilliant excerpts. I also love Westerns, the colors on Mount Tamalpais after it rains, and Native American textiles. When the books need a break, I listen to everything from country music to the BBC essential mixes… while I dance around in my studio.

Has there been a person or experience that has steered your work in new or significant directions?
It’s hard to answer this in a simple way, as I think all events in my life steer the work. I’ve always been very influenced by my surroundings and the people in my life, but a few transformative moments:
Building forts with my parents as a little kid. Seeing a Keith Haring exhibit early on. Sitting in the driveway with my mom drawing chalk imitations. Getting thrown out of my one and only art class in high school for not following the assignment rules. Seeing Fernand Léger’s “Composition aux deux Perroquets” in person in the Pompidou. Figuring out that my doodles were my truest expression, despite their “imperfections.” Painting my first large scale mural in spray paint, and realizing the leg was too long- but going with it because it felt right.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I don’t really live with a plan in mind. I am excited about making things everyday, waking up and embracing life’s creative tangents.

How do you navigate the art world?
I’m a ship without a sail.

Do you see your work as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture? Which other artists might your work be in conversation with?
I admire the work and career of Barry Mcgee, William Kentridge and David Choe in that they created their own paths. Eddy Martinez and Thomas Houseago both seem to tap into the non-self conscious and tribal aspects of themselves in their work- and I think my pieces often answer theirs.

Do you have a motto?
The path is the goal.

What three things never fail to bring you pleasure?
Bikes, burritos and the mountains.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
Ian Ross Gallery in SF, sometime in March… Date is yet to be set.

To see more of Zio’s work:
I update my Instagram page the most @zioziegler, and my blog at