Ann Arbor Chalk Artist David Zinn and his Disappearing Art
Why Zinn — and nearly a million followers — are so into art that doesn’t last.
At first, it was an excuse for David Zinn to get outside on a sunny afternoon.
“I shamelessly rationalized that I could go outside and enjoy the nice day as long as I was making art,” Zinn says. “I decided to call it practicing.”
That was 20 years ago and Zinn is still making chalk drawings — only now it’s his life’s work and has taken the place of his more commercial freelance assignments.
So Zinn will grab his chalk — often just cheap Crayolas — and head outside. He’ll find an interesting crack in the sidewalk or bit of graffiti and work around that to create whimsical characters.
“It’s the broken spots that usually provide the inspiration,” he says. “Bits of gum that people have dropped that connect the dots and provide the inspiration.”
How long his work lasts depends on the weather and foot traffic, but it’s never long. And he’s OK with that. In fact, it’s part of the lesson. Part of the journey.
“Doing it has taught me good things about embracing the joys of temporary art, and by extension, the joys of embracing how everything is temporary," he says. “Worrying about the future of something is not the fun part. Just enjoying the present is about as carefree as you’re going to be.”
So how did Zinn monetize his “pointless” art?
Over the course of 20 years, people began to notice what he did, both on the streets of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and on social media.
Zinn started his social media accounts to keep connected with his brother in Massachusetts, but now has nearly 800,000 followers on Instagram, a million on Facebook and 3 million on TikTok.
A recent post on Facebook (pictured below), for example, makes use of a crack in the sidewalk to frame the teeth of a sluglike creature named Mel, accompanied with the caption “Mel's social anxieties disappeared after he found those lost dentures.” It received nearly 6,000 likes.
In another creation, Zinn transforms a patch of children’s sidewalk chalk into a work called “Big Fish in a Small Playground,” making sure to credit his collaboration with “unknown artist(s).” That post was shared nearly 500 times.
Zinn’s social media accounts received two huge boosts — once when Instagram featured him on its official page and once, during the pandemic, when the BBC did an uplifting story on him.
“As my work on the sidewalk got more popular, people were willing to pay me,” he says. “And that photograph might end up in a book or a calendar or a post card.”
He recently published a coffee table book called “Chance Encounters: Temporary Street Art by David Zinn” and points those interested in learning his craft toward "The Chalk Art Handbook: How to Create Masterpieces on Driveways and Sidewalks and in Playgrounds."
He’s even been hired by art councils in places like Laguna Beach, California, and Columbus, Indiana, to come in for a few days and do his thing by drawing in random and unexpected places.
On average, Zinn says it takes him about two hours to complete a drawing, including time spent planning, executing and chatting to passers-by.
He says he’s an introvert and, in a strange way, chalking sidewalks has freed him from the pressure to conform.
“All of that worry gets aside because I’m already crouching on the ground,” he explains. “It’s surprisingly comforting as a safety bubble for a shy person to be so outrageous in your behavior that people are not even going to see you.”
The biggest struggle for Zinn, however, is his own opinion of his work.
“What you create with your hands is never a perfect match with your expectations in your mind,” he says. “Every artist is disappointed. That’s part of the territory. The only difference is whether you let that stop you.”
Follow us on Facebook or Instagram.
Want more Lake Erie in your life? Subscribe to our free The Splash newsletter. It’s your guide to the best food, drinks, parks, beaches, shopping, festivals, music and more.