Not too long after jam-packing a 24-foot trailer and hitching it to her car, Jihan Zencirli found herself at an L.A. house party. Her 2010 move from Seattle was sudden; she packed all her things and decided to take the plunge with only one tenuous connection in L.A., who soon left the city. At the house party, she arrived with cupcakes and a giant balloon with a tassel trailing close to the floor.
But this was no low-key affair. The hosts had hired little people to dance on tables. Zencirli felt out of place.
Amid that chaos she found one of the many people who would join her team of balloon troopers under the name Geronimo. Almost overnight, Zencirli made a name for herself in online circles with her giant, tassel-adorned balloons. Measuring about 36 inches wide, with tassels measuring several feet, these balloons aren’t the ones of your childhood. And chances are you’ve seen installations of them around the city.
When she first arrived in L.A., a friend gave her a corner of a warehouse so she could work. A feature on Oh Joy’s blog soon led to more exposure, and one day Zencirli found herself with a $30,000 PayPal balance.
“I was like, 'I transposed some bank numbers ... this is going to the wrong person,'” she says.
Another reason the dough racked up: Zencirli’s sense of humor. She’d set up a “really hokey-pokey, rinky-dinky website” that a friend from high school created and jokingly offered a balloon option that included “Swarovski dust and a diamond-encrusted handle.” Turns out people actually wanted it.
Once the word got out about the balloons, the orders kept coming in, and Zencirli’s style and story began to unfurl like an endless party streamer. By now, Geronimo and Zencirli have been featured in People, Racked, Glamour, the L.A. Times, O Magazine and more. Just last week, she was named a recipient of the L.A. Design Festival's 2017 Edge award, alongside artists Tuesday Bassen and Lauren Halsey. Her installations have popped up all over the world.
When she moved to L.A. seven years ago, Zencirli didn’t expect this success. Thrust into a business with high demand, she quickly had to find her footing. That meant working late nights and sleeping in the warehouse. At first, she didn’t even know where to find a laundromat ,so she frequently bought dollar shirts from the nearby American Apparel factory bins.
“I didn’t know my own strength,” says Zencirli, who was married and divorced in her early 20s. “I didn’t know how hard I could work. I kinda thought I was a lazy human and all these things that you wanna develop and you wanna become — I think I never had the opportunity to develop these personal things."
On a sunny Saturday morning, she shows up to brunch dressed in a green Esprit sweatshirt with a white Peter Pan collar peeking out from underneath. Her blond hair is pulled back, flyaways held down by two clips on either side of her head. Her phone is ensconced in a hot dog phone case.
She explains that once she started creating installations, she found herself taking on projects with brands such as Cadillac and T-Mobile and designing installations for artists like Kanye West.
“What I’m really passionate about is having something that’s ... in a public façade that really brings in everyone and it's for everyone,” Zencirli says.
She raised the prices of her balloons over time because the cost of materials continued to rise, so public projects became an important way to reach a wider audience.
They might be playful but the balloon installations aren’t cheap: A recent one at the Hollywood Sunset Free Clinic took eight hours and 15 people to install and cost around $5,000 just in materials. Now, the special projects she creates are often ways to pay for the free projects she wants to install. She wants to create an experience that breaks up the monotony of a day and creates a sense of whimsy.
She’s seen plenty of weird exchanges, though. Once, a man “pulled his pants down” and proceeded to rub his butt up against the balloons. Another time she saw a guy on his bike with a “whole trail of” balloons a few blocks away from the actual installation.
The installations naturally start to change as the balloons deflate, but Zencirli loves that part of the process.
“They’re beautiful to me as they break down and sometimes people don’t see that,” she says. “And I can’t make that beautiful to anyone, but I like the aesthetic of being sort of not so perfect and not so pristine. I like when they’ve been up for a couple of weeks and they’re dirty and they’re sort of hanging low, like little weird pouches on a line.”
The element of the unexpected plays a huge part in what makes up Geronimo. You’d think that each Instagram photo of a balloon installation would be accompanied by some pithy saying and a slew of hashtags, but Zencirli mostly posts #JIHANTHOUGHTS, which are long, all-caps rants that rarely reference the piece photographed. A recent photo of her installation at the Broad Museum talks about coupons (“WHAT HAPPENS TO ALL THE BACK MASSAGE COUPONS THAT PEOPLE GIVE AS REALLY THOUGHTFUL HALF ASS LAST MINUTE GIFTS?").
At first glance, her work might suggest that it was created by someone who's in love with bright colors and roams the streets of the city singing happy songs at the top of her lungs like a Disney princess, but that's not the case. Zencirli always liked having all-white birthday parties. And she admits that the installations aren’t exactly bubbly in her mind.
“I’m working out my life struggles through my work,” she says. “But it comes out as looking so happy, so saccharine, so pretty, so [attuned to the] aesthetic of what Pinterest and Instagram holds dear in the year 2017. And sometimes that’s hard for me as well, because I don’t really in any other part of my life really pander to that crowd. ... There’s a conflict there.”
Which is not to say Zencirli isn’t grateful for the Pinterest users who've helped her achieve success. But she won’t stick with balloons forever. She’s interested in conceptual work as well, pieces that require interaction from others. Recently she’s been exploring the idea of a live book, an interactive piece in which attendees act out the little activities that happen in an airplane or at an art museum.
“I’m letting a guy shower at my house at noon,” she says, suddenly, checking her phone to see the time.
It’s not a strange statement coming from Zencirli. She’s naturally curious about people: their origin stories, their lives, their interests. She confesses that she’s mostly unfollowed everyone she knows on Instagram. She prefers picking “a genre of human” and following 20 or so accounts in that category. Right now it’s Italian celebrities, a supermodel and her boyfriend who often share snapshots of their posh lives.
At brunch, she often makes small comments on what other people nearby are doing. She asks the waiter questions about the food, not in a foodie way but in an inquisitive way that focuses on the process of how it all got to the table.
So it only makes sense that she would make small talk with a man she often sees walking the streets of her neighborhood.
“He talked about how stability has been an issue for him and that, yes, people recognize him all over the Eastside but ... he knows his hygiene isn’t how he prefers,” Zencirli says. “So he’s like, ‘Look, I get it, I look rough to people.’ The least I can do for another friend is allow them to take a shower at my house.”
Zencirli wants others to learn the stories of the people around them with the same genuine curiosity. She’s currently working on a project in which she interviews people she knows, such as her neighbor who's a retired mariachi singer, and creates posters about them to distribute. She hopes that way, “When people see them, they know a little bit about them and they can say hi.”
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And while Zencirli is now so closely tied to L.A., she still thinks pretty frequently about moving. One place in particular is always calling her back: her great-grandparents' quirky house in Seattle, which had pink carpeting on the walls and secret passageways.
In the future, she hopes to show up at the door “with mounds of cash,” ready to buy it back from the family that currently owns it. She still remembers the sunsets in that house.
“The house always was, like, glowing,” Zencirli says. “It always glowed in this golden color. And even now if I close my eyes — everything that I want to create in my world is about replicating this feeling of how warm that feels, how good that feels.”