Feature Friday #019 — Mario Zucca

Illustrator of athletes, self-made thousandaire, and most importantly, long-time CB designer, Mario Zucca joins the program. We talk about Pittsburgh being the best city in the world and how the industry is changing. Check out his impressive work at mariozucca.com and his CB collection here.

Usually we start off easy and work our way up to the tough questions, but not this time. Let's get right down to business. Better city, Philly or Pittsburgh?

Haha, oh man, hardball question right off the bat. I'm gonna be political and say that Philly's great, but I miss Pittsburgh a lot and try to get back as often as I can. How's that for a non-answer?

I was hoping for some more shade thrown at Philly, but I guess this will do. Now that we got the important one out of the way, we can move on to other locations.

We're suckers for your hand-drawn maps. And the Greetings series is just so fun. How did you pick the locations for each of them? Are they your favorites places, destinations you've always wanted to visit, areas with great art communities?

I started off the map series with places I've lived (Philly, Pittsburgh, and Portland, OR). The reception to Portland was kind of lukewarm though, and that's when I realized Midwest/Rust Belt cities are sort of my sweet spot.

I like underdog cities that tend to get overlooked or dumped on a bit. They're the places where you find people who have the most rabid city pride, and, not coincidentally, they seem to be the most receptive and excited about my maps.

Mario Zucca Buffalo map wall mural on Hertel Ave

Well now I know you're a Pittsburgher at heart. You had us at 'underdog city.'

I am interested in the difference between these cities in terms of the art community though. Have you noticed any major contrasts between them? Maybe more support in certain areas or collaboration in others? Or are they all pretty tight knit due to the nature of the business.

It's tough to speak to the art communities in the cities where I haven't spent much time, but based solely on the reception my illustrated maps have received, it definitely seems like some cities have a more welcoming mentality.

In Buffalo, for example, their main newspaper, The Buffalo News, ran a feature on my work, and a local printer up there secured funding to turn it into a mural on one of their main art corridors, Hertel Ave.

That's incredible! Hertel Ave is beautiful. That's gotta feel good to be featured among other impressive artists.

You've partnered with a bunch of awesome brands like Crayola, Dr. Pepper, ESPN, and about a million others. Have there been any real 'pinch me' moments getting to collab with so many high profile companies? I'm a huge sports fan, so having work featured in an NHL arena is just incredibly cool to me.

Any chance I've had to work for a sports team has been incredible, but the Sheetz truck graphic I designed a few years back was probably my all-time favorite project. It's the project that people have commented on the most, and it's never not surreal seeing my artwork driving down the highway.

Mario Zucca's illustration on the Sheetz fleet

Sheetz is the best answer here. Clearly superior to Wawa. Assuming you're a one-truck-and-done guy, what's up next for you? Anything really outside the box? Expansion of old concepts or collabs? Selfishly I hope it's a continuation of your sports work.

I definitely want to keep making sports work, and I plan to build out more Burgh-specific stuff in the months ahead. I'm actually working on a board game right now, which has been a fun departure. I don't want to give out too many details just yet, but it's a resource-management game centered around food truck culture.

Speaking of trucks...Sheetz all the way.

Now we're talking. From what I understand, you and Dan Levy are very close friends. At least that's what it seems like in Happiest Season. On a scale from 1 to fries-on-a-sandwich, can you tell me how awesome it was to see your work in an actual movie? 

Haha, that was definitely fries-on-a-sandwich! I've had artwork in the background of a couple other film sets, but never up front and center like that.

Mario Zucca Pittsburgh print in Happiest Season

Your art has such a natural flow to it. The theme and consistency really stands out. Do you feel like these types of details will disappear with the introduction of AI? Designers we've chatted with have used AI as a tool, but could it become more than that for opportunists who want to get ahead without putting in the time and effort?

Oh man, that's the million dollar question.

For all the advancements AI has made, it's still just a derivative tool with a lot of limitations, and it's still very easy to spot AI-generated art. That may change in the years ahead, but for now it seems like there's still no replacement for well-researched and conceptualized, hand-drawn art made by a human being.

P(Hi)lly Cheesesteak by Mario Zucca

Fair enough. AI art might not be a sincere form of flattery, but it's sort of an imitation so let's roll with it. Have you molded your work off of anyone? Folks that have been an inspiration to you or that you aspire to be like?

Learning how successful designers get to where they're at is so important for the next generation. Your style is unique but I'm assuming it was based on specific pieces somewhere along the way. 

Definitely. I've been inspired by a pretty eclectic mix of art, but mostly by the art of Martin Handford (Where's Waldo), R. Crumb's crosshatch style, the amazing portraits of Philip Burke, and fellow map illustrators like John Roman and Aaron Meshon.

I'm also constantly inspired by other PA-based illustrators/designers like Mark Bender, Martha Rich, Tim Gough, Hawk Krall...the list could go on and on, but I'll stop there.

You're definitely in great company with those names.

Thanks so much for taking the time out to chat with us, Mario. We love to joke about Philly, but just to make it clear, it's a great city… that's just not quite as great as ours 😉.

P.S. Use code FeatureFriday15 for 15% off all Mario Zucca products now through 4/28!