Armor: The Son of a Clothing Empire Sheaths His Street-Art Figures in Tough Exoskeletons

Ground Zero for San Francisco's street-art scene has shifted radically in the past year. It was once clearly centered in the Mission — around Clarion Alley, Lilac Alley, and the district's other narrow corridors — but it's now concentrated in the wide-open area around mid-Market. Within minutes, you can walk from Apex's swirl of alluring shapes (Turk at Market) to OSGEMEOS' inspired spray-painter (1007 Market St., near Sixth) to the horizon of curious figures that compose Rush Hour (Market near Seventh). And then there's the totemic collection of work at 1131 Mission St. near Seventh, in which the most dramatic piece is by Zio Ziegler.

Titled The Dawn of Man, it takes up two stories of an outside wall, and is dominated by a behemoth black-and-white human covered head-to-toe in scales, zigzags, crisscrosses, circles, and other distinct shapes that form a kind of charcoaled exoskeleton. Ziegler's figure hovers sideways over a sun, floating in the air like a balloon in New York's Thanksgiving Day parade. The Dawn of Man — one of about 20 Ziegler works in San Francisco and Marin County — confirms Ziegler's status as one of the Bay Area's best young street artists. Ziegler, who's 25, creates figures that stem from his imagination and, he says, his unconscious self. Both primordial and futuristic, the floating figure in The Dawn of Man was influenced by Ziegler's recent reading of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities and Edward Gibbon's 18th-century book, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Ziegler, who attended Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, often reads works of literature and history that inspire his street art.

"I don't really understand my work when I'm making it," he says. "I react to the space, and it's contextualized by the books that I'm reading, by what mythologies are speaking to me, and this kind of collective unconscious that I'm exposing myself to. That piece started as a few figures racing on bikes. And that wasn't working. So I used the same lines and pivoted to this giant figure. I was thinking of this new dawn, with an abandoned building, but with new life being breathed in. And I wanted to parallel man with the celestial movements and the rhythms of nature. I wanted to show that man's fate was now in his own hands."

Works like Zio Ziegler's The Dawn of Man are shifting street art from the Mission to mid-Market, one wall at a time.
Mike Koozmin
Works like Zio Ziegler's The Dawn of Man are shifting street art from the Mission to mid-Market, one wall at a time.

Ziegler's unique illustration style, and his emphasis on the "unknowing" — on trying to pose as many questions as answers — makes his work stand out in the spectacle of San Francisco's street-art scene. Most of Ziegler's street work features the exoskeletal digits that are so prominent in The Dawn of Man. Ziegler makes his street art in as little as a few hours, improvising his figures onto whatever wall space he has. The Dawn of Man went up last summer, when [freespace], a collective of artists, activists, and community organizers, rented the building at 1131 Mission St. for what it called "a social civic experiment," where anyone could work for free. Hackers came. Writers came. And so did street artists, who were invited to drape the building's outside wall with works of their choosing.

The wall overlooks an empty lot, so the art there — including that of Ian Ross, Griffin One, and Apex — offers great sight lines, whether from Mission Street or from Minna Street, which bookend the property. How long this open-air museum will last is unclear. [freespace] used the building only for a short time, and the building is again for lease — which could bring in a lessee who isn't enamored of the wall's giant brush strokes.

Regardless, Ziegler and his cohorts will find other walls to paint. Increasingly, curators and property owners are commissioning works from Ziegler, as happened in December 2013, when he painted the outside of the San Franpsycho's Outer Sunset store, at 3830 Noriega St., near 45th Avenue. Ziegler's coiled figure there is riding a board, a determined look on his face as he peers toward the Pacific Ocean.

Ziegler has run his own stores on occasion, selling clothing featuring his artwork out of temporary pop-up stores. Ziegler's zest for retail ("I want to make my art accessible") can be traced to the influence of his parents, Mel and Patricia Ziegler, who founded Banana Republic, which was bought by Gap in 1983. (The Zieglers also co-founded The Republic of Tea.) Ziegler, who grew up in Marin County and lives in Mill Valley, says his parents encouraged him early on to work hard and pursue his interests. He's had jobs since age 12, he says, and doesn't advertise his pedigree. In fact, Ziegler says, San Francisco's older generation of street artists, people like Barry McGee and Jeremy Fish, were also a major inspiration, albeit indirectly.

"My parents are very inspirational people: They're very supportive of what I do, but not in a monetary sense," Ziegler says, laughing. "In their very early days, they went with what they had. The Banana Republic you see now is big business. The stories I grew up around, and the mentality of sweeping floors to get through college — I was raised in the same way that my parents were. I used what I had to make something of myself. I'm very grateful for that. But you have to overcome the notion and the perception that other people give to and attribute to that sort of privilege."

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