Geronimo Balloons x RED Talks
It was one of those wet, dark mornings recently that makes you want to crawl into a cave and cry, and I’m in a taxi on my way to see an installation being put up by Jihan Zencirli. Also known by her community of 100 thousand Instagram fans as Geronimo Balloons, Jihan has been commissioned by Vancouver’s RED Talks, a speaker style event focused on bringing forward real estate and development ideas that affect the city. Her sculpture will represent the theme surrounding its ever-hot real estate ‘bubble.’
Just as the cab driver confirms my destination, I see it: huge clusters of bright red balloons adorn the side and roof of the Vancouver Playhouses’ otherwise simple façade. I soon forget about the torrential rain and leap out of the cab, thrilled to gawk at it up close. I sat down with Jihan and we talked about her how her creativity has led her to put up awe-inspiring balloon creations all over the world, and why it’s so much more than that.
Photos by Ariana Gillrie
I first learned about you through Instagram, via blogger Oh Joy. Tell me your story. How did you turn balloons into a career?
“It’s funny you brought up Oh Joy, she is why I have a business today. Almost seven years ago, I was handing out balloons with a paper tassel I’d made and giving them as gifts to people. It was this hobby I did on the side. Joy had found out about it through a friend and did a post about it on her blog. I had never sold a balloon up until that point, and then I had sold $30,000 worth overnight. I didn’t know how to send it to people and didn’t capture anyone’s addresses – it was a big mess. But from there I realized people are willing to pay for this thing and they want to be part of this interesting trend. It then became so much bigger, as other people tried to create their own versions of it. It was this concept of having a big balloon with a tassel hanging off it, and no one had ever done it before. So I got to be the forefront of the party and ephemeral design of that time and part of different campaigns and projects, it just got picked up and carried for more miles because of how willing people are to invest in artists who have a funny dream – which balloons are sort of a funny dream for people.”
How were you earning a living prior to this? How did the transition take place?
“I was creative director for a children’s company that focused on yoyos, so I actually designed yoyos before this. I’ve always enjoyed making things with my hands and [the balloons have] always been an outlet to show my attention and love for my friends. It began from me wanting to give something unique to my best friend on her birthday. I gave her this balloon that sort of erupted the space and everyone wanted to be a part of our table and ask a question and talk to her on her birthday and I saw how this 36-inch balloon could bring people’s curiosities out, who would never be interested in our table otherwise. Even if they hate it, even if it’s imposing and they don’t like the balloon, it brings out some sort of a response.”
What happened next?
“For the first two years I just drove around L.A., I’d fly places; people would hire me to show up on doorsteps with big clusters of balloons, in a vintage dress with a topknot. It was kind of like performance art. I got to understand L.A. and be part of the entire city in a really unique way because people were having me show up in interesting situations with a single balloon and a message: someone was having a kid, or there was a wedding or some celebration or surprise or engagement. I got to be part of that. People started catching on and wanted to make their own versions of what I did, so it took on a life of its own. Other companies started selling similar versions and I always knew the point wasn’t to be a balloon manufacturer or retailer; it was this kind of love letter that I was giving. I enjoy the space of balloons so much because it draws on nostalgia and memory and being part of this magical experience when you’re a child, and you see this thing that’s floating and it’s so special. I’ve innovated it into a new feeling."
How did your vision of the balloon projects evolve to be the scale they are now?
“Creating these works now, I feel more passionate about it being in a place where everyone can observe and you don’t have to be at a party or order one from me to experience it. It’s for the entire city. I really lean on my clients who believe in the experience, who know – either from seeing it online or being part of it themselves – how effective it is to bring in a crowd, to bring delight and to be this ephemeral short-lived gift that lives on the corner, as it does here today. The idea is that it will get bigger and bigger but eventually it will change again: it may be balloons, it may not , it may be on buildings or it may be in the sky.”
Aside from working in L.A., your work involves you travelling a lot. How do you choose which companies to work with?
"I take a lot of commissions where companies have ideas or concepts and then we work together to create something that meets both of our needs. Aesthetically it’s important for it to match up with my style, but bigger than that is the idea that they want to give it as a gift to the city they live in. So if they’re commissioning an art piece essentially that matches or coincides with their event, it’s really about everyone that walks by and less about them trying to promote their own agenda or brand. Clients really get that, and this world of experiential marketing budgets that companies have now which is all about the surprise and delight – that is how I’m able to do this.”
“Twenty-five percent of what I charge my clients goes back to creating sculptures for schools and neighbourhoods, where I get to surprise them and give them a gift. RED Talks commissioned this sculpture, and this is going to represent a smaller sculpture somewhere else, which is a really big deal for me, because the balloons and the labour are really expensive. The only way I can sustain the thing I love about it most, which is to be able to spread it wider and wider and wider, are the great companies who get it and want to be a part of it.”
You now have a team who works with you to set up the balloon sculptures wherever you are. How do you source such people?
“I work with a lot of dancers; this is perfect work for someone who understands a 6-hour sprint of intense labour, a deadline, and repetitive movement tasks to get stuff done. I have dancers all over the world who I’ve hired and hired their friends. Very rarely do I ever have another balloon artist help because it’s less about that and more about this team that’s creating this space and they’re all really excited about it and it’s fresh for them.”
Do you plan out your projects ahead of time? How is each one conceptualized?
"Maxine and I had worked for quite awhile on photos. I knew the dimensions, what it looked like, and we worked back and forth on creating the general feel for what it would be. But it isn’t until I get to a location and I see how the light hits it and how is it going to play off what this thing is in real life. Fifty percent of it is well planned out and the rest is kind of like, ‘hmm, that looks better this way.’”
How do you stay authentic and grounded when you see people copying your work?
“People often say you should be flattered when someone copies you. It’s a weird world to straddle what in my heart is fine art: I am building this thing because how I feel inside, and I’m able to make money doing it because I’ve created this commercial element where I work with brands, it’s up on the internet and it can be bought. It feels like fair game for other businesses to take as their own, take a formula they see is working and regurgitate it. I don’t actually have a problem with people doing that. However, I feel that, as art in general,
I get a little anxious about that. The truth is, this is my voice today, and it will change in three months, in five years. So I’m honoured that people want to make something that they see that I do. I hope that they make it better. Making it your own is really important."
Do you enjoy travelling as much as you do now?
“We do a lot in L.A. still, and I’m just inspired by travel, so if when I find out that we have a job somewhere, I’ll tack on a few extra days to explore and see things. Being out of my normal routine is really helpful to my process of being inspired and I think it’s really important for my team to also be in these new environments and see things, and see that it’s not just an L.A. clientele that loves this on the wall. We go to Paris and people are so excited about it there, and it instils this pride for what we do. Sometimes you want to know that it’s making people happy and not just this vein attempt to show people, ‘Oh, amazing, I can blow up a bunch of balloons,’ but rather that people are connected to it.”