In the midst of a chaotic travel itinerary, artist Zio Ziegler returned to his hometown of San Francisco for a brief break. His intricately detailed work—both on the canvas and on huge walls—has led to shows and murals around the world. Ziegler has also collaborated with major names like Vans and Urban Outfitters. But through it all, he keeps his focus on improving his work with an uncluttered mind. We caught up with this in-demand talent at his Mill Valley studio, where the topics included his laid-back style, artistic inspirations, and love for nature.
It seems like you work on a lot of different surfaces. What’s the one thing that you can’t live without—artistically or personally?
Books. I mean, just reading. I could not live without reading books. If I read an author’s works, I want to know everything about that author so I read every essay. He’ll mention an author and then it’s like breadcrumbs. And you’re like ‘Oh my god that’s his favorite author,’ so then I’m there. It can be anything—even references in film and music. It’s this network of knowledge that I really could not find inspiration without.
How would you describe your style and your appearance?
I wanna be a cowboy. Like, I saw The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and I was just like, ‘Man I want to be Clint Eastwood so badly.’ I don’t always dress like a cowboy but I’ve definitely gone through phases. I feel very uncomfortable dressing up a lot. I have paint on all of my clothing—on everything I own. Unless it’s clothing that I’ve just gotten, and then give me like a week and without a doubt there’s one little mark that’ll end up on there, and it’s like ‘Well, these are just my painting paints.’ Everything. Even my one suit has paint on it.
What’s the first thing that you do in the morning to get ready for the day?
It depends on the season really. Some mornings I wake up and I’ll ride my bike for two hours. I’ll wake up really early, I’ll listen to an audiobook, and I’ll ride my bike for a couple hours—like, hard. And then I’ll come back, shower, shave, and be ready to go into the studio all day. A clean face, a clear mind. It kind of gets this frenetic energy out of my system and I’m able to be very calm and paint. Otherwise, sometimes in the summer I’ll typically ride my bike in the evening. So I’ll just get up and have my coffee. I procrastinate emails, I procrastinate all that stuff until I’m at a point of my day where I can deal with problems or comparisons or relativity.
In terms of style, is there a specific pair of pants that you couldn’t live without? Is there a specific shirt?
Yeah. I’m really into Native American jewelry. I think it’s pretty rad. My mom got me a bracelet for my birthday and she makes stuff a lot. I’d say it’s more the things that people made for me that I couldn’t live without. Everything else is pretty transitory. I’m a huge fan of Native American paintings, like the Plains Indians paintings and just being connected with the Earth. The beauty in the mark-making of Native American pattern work is hugely influential in my painting.
What do you do to look good on a daily basis or feel good on a daily basis?
I wear fresh underwear. I go clean-shaven. I got an electronic toothbrush, which is this huge thing in my life. It was an investment. But yeah, I’d just say good hygiene puts me on the right track.
You’ve got more of a low-key style.
Yeah. I always bring a pen with me everywhere that I go. I always try to remind myself that I’m a grown-up child. If I’m ever really down, I just read the philosopher Alan Watts and that puts thing in perspective. I try to ride my bike every day, or go hiking. I also tend to dress in a way that’s the inverse of what I’m painting, I think—subconsciously. I’m always on the other edge of the spectrum. It’s like we kind of fill each other out.
I’m curious about what you see as the identity or the style of San Francisco, especially since you grew up here but have traveled to a lot of places.
I think it’s a non-linear existence. It’s the closest one can get to, like, the ideology I’ve seen in the outskirts of Panama, in a weird way. It’s this idea that I create to live. That’s how everyone functions for the most part. Whether it’s a startup, or an artist, or a writer—people seem to place their creative outlook before the sort of linear, ’50s style. They really seem to value letting every day organically fall in front of the next.
There seem to be a lot of different avenues that feed into your work. What are the biggest things that inspire you?
I grew up really inspired by graffiti culture. That was the mindset I took to art for the longest time—fast, instinctual. It is about you as an artist and picking up on the zeitgeist around you. It’s about the punch and impact of conveying these images to the world. I’d say Byzantine work. I’d say early Aegean and Egyptian sculpture, Romanesque art—just work that came as a catalyst for change in the culture around it. It’s really eclectic but a lot of what we would see today as crude representations of the human form. Like carved out of stone; like material where you couldn’t just give your idea to a fabricator—you had to train for years to render and pull what we would see now as naive forms out of rock.
Can you tell me a little bit about the shirt that you’re wearing?
Yeah, this is for a show that I had open at BEAMS in Shibuya—I think it’s still open—and it’s with a couple other friends of mine. We did a group show, and it was one guy form Boston, one guy from Hawaii, one guy from Tokyo. And we made shirts. A lot of my friends in Japan work for BEAMS, so we did that. I painted a mural a few months ago on the side of their building in Tokyo, and I love it there. I did all these watercolors and then I sent them artwork.
Do you do watercolor work a lot?
This is how I fill stuff on paper. I don’t really work digitally at all. I work with all analog color, which is extraordinarily hard to print, but with the quality, it’s kind of nice.
How do you think about translating your work onto shirts or shoes? Do you approach it differently? Do you start with a sketch?
I typically don’t. I never make the same piece twice. So if I’m making a work for a product, it’s exclusively for that. And I’m in the mindset that a lot of the art world is anti-product. I think it’s cool to just take on different design challenges as long as you’re not saying ‘here’s my canvas, I’m gonna print it on coffee mugs’ and stuff like that. I don’t really do that. I’m like ‘Here’s my canvas. I like this one pattern out of the left corner. I’m gonna put that on women’s dresses.’ That’s cool—you’re just leveraging your work in a different field and allowing it to be more accessible. I really like that. That’s kind of my methodology.
Looking back on your journey, what do you think has been the key to your success?
Well, I don’t know if I’m successful. Really, it’s this idea of the weight of expectation. It’s such a globalized marketplace right now for art. I think one can continue playing around forever. I’ve been very lucky because I know way more talented people than me who have a hard time making work full time. Every time I’m invited to paint a wall somewhere or travel it’s like ‘I can’t believe I’m in Tokyo painting a wall right now! What the hell?’