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Zio the Unstoppable

Jenna Scatena | November 21, 2014 | Story Profiles

Every surface, each blank speck or white cranny in muralist Zio Ziegler's Mill Valley studio, is a canvas. The rug we're standing on is one of his designs, and the wood floor is slathered with so much paint that it looks like a psychedelic carpet. Near the front door, a pile of Vans sneakers adorned with Ziegler sketches—prototypes for his namesake line that will debut next spring—gives way to a mountain of T-shirts sporting his iconic tribal tiger. On the way to the backyard, we pass by enough paintings to fill a sizable gallery. Outside, tucked behind a territory of unruly weeds, is a defunct pool that's now home to a mural depicting a ghostly, contorted figure marked with geometric patterns—reminiscent of the Huntington Beach skate park that the artists painted last year for the Vans US Open of Surfing. To Ziegler, the world is just one colossal coloring book.

Within a few short years, the 26-year-old with angular features and dark, inquisitive eyes has gone from painting the walls of a local diner near his college in exchange for free pancakes to becoming the most prolific artist in the Bay Area, tattooing the skin of San Francisco with a colorful new sleeve. More than 40 of his murals are splashed across the city’s walls: There’s the one of a tiger lurking on 24th Street in the Mission; the one of a man with distorted limbs falling through the sky on Seventh Street in SoMa; the naked, patterned human vacantly staring back at you at the Phoenix Hotel in the Tenderloin. They are nearly universally geometric, obsessively ornamented, and allegorical—so distinctive that his style warrants inventing the category “contemporary urban cave art” just to have a way of swiftly labeling it.

If his prolificness alone isn’t mind-boggling enough, try to comprehend this: Ziegler approaches these massive murals with zero game plan. He simply plugs in a book-on-tape (anything from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations to Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers), hops aboard a cherry picker, straps on his straw sun hat and respirator, and begins problem solving. “I get to the wall and make initial mistakes, then pivot my next step into a new opportunity, create another mistake, which turns into another opportunity,” he explains. “I never give a concept or sketch beforehand. My commissioners just have to trust me.” A typical workday can last 19 hours—Ziegler recently completed a 160-by-45-foot mural for a decommissioned Hunters Point power plant in just six days.

The murals that pedestrians encounter along the urban streetscape are just a modest sampling of Ziegler’s portfolio—he churns out more than 1,000 paintings and sketches a year. Step inside the headquarters of many local tech companies—Facebook, Google, Lyft, SherpaVentures, Medium—and you’ll see Ziegler’s figures swirling above the employees. His roster of collectors includes the late Robin Williams, tech entrepreneur Andrew Zenoff, Huffington Post Home and Lifestyle editor Zem Joaquin, and Food Network star Tyler Florence; he even hand-painted venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar’s McLaren.

There’s now an eight-month waiting list for Ziegler’s works, the value of which, according to the Ian Ross gallery in SoMa, has almost doubled in the last year: A detailed sketch on paper recently sold for a tidy $3,500. And it’s not just San Franciscans who are enamored of Ziegler—the whole world wants a piece of him. Within the last few years, he has had four shows from Puerto Rico to Milan and has painted sprawling murals in Tokyo, Brooklyn, London, Nashville, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Austin. He’s ending the year by illustrating a cover of Architectural Digest and writing the cover story: a meditation on what modern civilization might look like in 2050.

But it’s the tech sector that most reveres Ziegler. “It’s no coincidence that his work is on walls of Facebook and in the homes of many high-powered people,” says Tina Sharkey, CEO of tech strategic advisory firm SherpaFoundry. To wealthy techies, she explains, his paintings are “metaphors of our movement. They capture the zeitgeist of San Francisco’s renaissance in a way technology can’t—we realize that our products are ephemeral, but his work will withstand the test of time.”

Ziegler doesn’t quite fit the picture of a starving artist. He grew up in Mill Valley, the eldest child of Mel and Patricia Ziegler, founders of Banana Republic and Republic of Tea. His childhood was full of mountain bike rides on Mount Tamalpais, beach days at his family’s vacation home in Stinson Beach, and ocean cruises on his parents’ yacht. He graduated from Marin’s most expensive private high school, Branson, which has a current sticker price of $39,000 per year. He was repeatedly kicked out of art class for not following directions, but his family was always encouraging. For the Zieglers, art is an essential part of life. “In their family, it’s imagination that’s held in the highest regard,” says Sharkey, a family friend who calls on Ziegler’s mom for advice on raising her own teenage boys. “They encouraged Zio to pursue creativity at the expense of everything else.” Still, Ziegler insists that he was taught fiscal responsibility. He wasn’t given an allowance as a kid; instead, he recalls selling his T-shirts to Mill Valley’s surf shop, Proof Lab, for “pizza and CD money.” In college at the Rhode Island School of Design—where, he says, professors repeatedly rejected his art—he found validation by selling shirts out of his backpack.

Those early rejections, combined with an innate talent as a salesman, have led Ziegler down a path drastically different from that of most artists. For one, he refuses to hire an agent or gallery to represent him—“I don’t want to paint six canvases a year and justify each one to the art world,” he says. “I’m not playing their game.” For another, within the last year he has released two lines with commercial companies: a 28-piece Pottery Barn Teen bedroom collection and a line of T-shirts for Vans and online retailer Without Walls, with a sneaker line for Vans to follow in 2015. Some critics might perceive the move as trading artistic integrity for commercial appeal, but Ziegler is unapologetic, forthrightly saying that he was the one who initiated the collaborations. He proclaims that it’s his way of broadening his audience: “Through the veneer of a product, big companies have the ability to spread art to someone who might not otherwise seek it out,” he says. “If you leverage your art with other people’s resources, you can have a much bigger impact.”

As his work becomes as prevalent as Banana Republic khakis, his biggest obstacle is fending off the privileged-child stigma. “He gets criticized for being a young Marin rich kid painting whatever he feels like,” says local painter and illustrator Jeremy Fish. “But while most young artists just rip off who they admire, Ziegler’s work is truly original.”

Still, Ziegler is as much an opportunist as he is an iconoclast. His commercial success is all part of his plan to be the most ubiquitous Bay Area artist of this era, a goal that stems from his earnest (some would say deluded) conviction that the influx of tech money will be followed by an art renaissance. “Tech is approaching an era of Medici-like patronage,” he says, arguing that the Bay Area is poised to become the world’s next great art center. “Right now, programmers and designers are some of the most regarded positions. But San Francisco’s next era will be as the first place to redefine the new art world. And it will accomplish that similarly to the way tech has brought information to the people—but instead of information, it’s bringing art straight to the audience, in as many ways as possible.”

If a San Francisco art renaissance is indeed upon us, is Ziegler to be our Michelangelo? There’s no argument that he’s the most exposed artist affiliated with the tech movement. He has a seemingly endless supply of creativity and works like a demon. When we meet back in September, he is prepping for his hundred-plus-foot mural at the decommissioned power plant in Hunters Point. “I’m contemplating the origins and transference of energy for it,” he says. Soon, he’ll be designing the facades of San Francisco buildings, a project that he’s working on with local developer Nick Podell. But while his murals are captivating, almost entrancing, some artists and viewers criticize them for lack of context and connection to their environment. There’s no discernible voice of a neighborhood, a city, or a generation—they don’t possess the political perspective of a Banksy mural or the clash of cultures of a Barry McGee. To his critics, Ziegler is less a thought leader than a talented ornamentalist whose work is aesthetically pleasing but of no great meaning. Ziegler responds, “I’m not appealing to a niche group. I want my work absolutely everywhere—I want to paint a canvas one day, then design T-shirts the next, construct the facades of buildings another. And for everyone to share it all with everyone else.”

Ziegler picks up a canvas of a dark, abstract human figure that was inspired by his recent visit to Italy. During that trip, he tells me, at the Duomo di Milano, a Gothic cathedral that took nearly six centuries to complete, he experienced a pivotal moment—a realization that set him on his feverish paint-everything-in-sight trajectory: “I have to make something that grand. I want to evoke the same awe spawned by 11th-century cathedrals—the awe that makes people believe in God.” He takes a deep breath and looks out a studio window overlooking Mill Valley and, in the distance, San Francisco. “That’s my goal: to make something never-ending. I’m going for the immortal.”

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

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