It's hard now to say when and where I first spotted a Zamar piece. I'm sure it was somewhere around Nob Hill and sometime in the past year, since there doesn't seem to be much evidence that he existed prior to that. Though tags and street writing are exceptionally common in proximity to the Art Academy, the little white squid figure kept catching my eye and soon started making frequent visits to my Instagaram feed sometime this past summer.
But I know exactly when I had my first Zamar moment:
I was walking through the Stockton Street tunnel on my way to Union Square. Even at midday, even though it connects 2 of the most pedestrian-heavy neighborhoods in SF, the Stockton Street tunnel is always light on foot traffic. Maybe it was just the breeze coming off the Bay and passing through Chinatown, but suddenly, I could smell squid. I found myself scanning the walls and utilities caps. And there he was, looking up at me from the edge of the narrow sidewalk that traverses the tunnel like he was languishing in a tide pool.
There is nothing particularly ground breaking about Zamar's work, physically. His work falls somewhere between a tag and a character piece and--truthfully-- it is not remarkable as either.
Character work in street art has illustratorly roots. Every illustrator can tell you about the character they drew over and over as a child, crafting new adventures in their imagination each time they sat down with a sketch book. These characters then grow into a visual shorthand to express some defining purpose for the artist, and they are fun and easy images to repeat.
It's easy to shit on tagging.
Tagging, at it's most base form, is the retarded little brother of street art. All that one really needs in order to call themselves a "Tagger" is a paint pen and antisocial tendencies. The only motivation that one can identify in the artist is an urge to write their name on something that doesn't belong to them. Of course, there are many taggers who create large, complex, beautifully crafted pieces which serve as modern self-portraits, no less masterful or insightful than those of Van Gogh. But for every one of them, there are ten thousand of these fuckers:
While recurring characters, images, and themes are common for street artistis, Zamar's work is distinctly a tag. Moreover, it is a profoundly rudimentary tag. In a street arts scene as robust as San Francisco's, how can a simple scribble ascend beyond petty vandalism?
How can a simple scribble ascend beyond petty vandalism?
Each Zamar piece is unique, and appears to be intuitive and spontaneous. There are a variety of recurring elements which Zamar relies on. These elements include an onion shaped head resting on top of vertically scribbled tentacles with two circles for eyes-- the eye on the right typically a bit larger than the one on the left. Also common is a question mark hovering at the top left of the piece, sometimes overlapping. Many pieces include the words "ZAMAR" or simply "MAR" and the year (as of this writing, these are exclusively 2014). A variety of punctuation marks and errant scribbles often round out the piece.
The artists weapon of choice is a white paint pen and his preferred canvas is the sidewalk, with a particular affinity for utilities caps and storm drains. As each piece is a composite of a variety of recognizable elements, Zamar is able to selectively step outside of these boundaries and still remain recognizable.
The net effect is a repetitive structure that makes for easy pattern recognition while leaving plenty of room for creativity and improvisation. Each Zamar is a tiny jazz piece: his head, tentacles, and eyes are a steady snare drum and bass line; errant squiggles and punctuation marks are the untethered saxophone in solo; and there's no rule that you can't throw in the occasional didgeridoo.
His work has yet to take on the audacity of "name" street artists like Banksy or Shepard Fairey, who challenge society at large with big, bold commentary on the military-industrial complex or the nature and purpose of art or whatever else happens to be vexing their creative soul, with the eyes of the arts world fixed on them in eager anticipation of a new masterwork. Zamar's message, if he has one, is unclear. The SFDPW reports that they spend $20 million annually to clean up graffiti and SFPD continues to wage a war on the controversial medium. On their website, they herald the catchy motto "The greatest graffiti is NO graffiti." The penalty for graffiti art which exceeds $400 in damage (which Zamar certainly has) is considered a felony and can come with up to 3 years in state prison and a fine of up to $50,000. Still, Banksy's latest trip through San Francisco was heralded and feted with all of the glitzy adoration of the art world.
More so, Zamar is like any other idiosyncratic San Franciscan that we spot around the neighborhood and giggle at with our friends.
"Ya know that guy who always wears a sequined cowboy hat to Trader Joe's? I saw him at the DMV!"
"No way? Did I tell you that I saw him at the post office... and he wasn't wearing the hat?"
This becomes the fun of Zamar. He can catch the corner of your eye anywhere, at any time and any place. But he also might stay there a bit, swimming around in your brain. And once you get to know him, you start to feel his tentacles pulling at you more and more. Chasing Zamar is always rewarding, because once you start looking for a Zamar piece you are always likely to soon find one. Stepping off a bus in the Richmond; cutting down an alley in Chinatown; sitting by the edge of the Bay at Fort Mason; navigating the mundanities of your day, anywhere in the City- there he is. Staring up at you from a tide pool where the sidewalk once was, and mocking you for following the rules.