Leaving her hometown of Seattle in 2011, Jihan Zencirli moved to Los Angeles to embark on the helium-powered endeavor that is Geronimo Balloons. Her official job description seems a little fuzzy; in addition to selling oversized balloons and party supplies online, she creates fantastical public art installations around Los Angeles.
On a recent Tuesday night, a group gathered in Geronimo Balloon’s bright and airy Echo Park studio to inflate balloons for a public balloon installation at Projection LA’s all-white “Bates Motel.” Pharrell William’s “Happy” was blasting on the stereo, everyone was dancing, and bright balloons were popping up all around. And just like that, a regular weekday was transformed into a party.
When asked if any of her installations have ever gotten her in trouble, Jihan replied, “Never. People just like to feel like they’re a part of something. I once did an installation for Bobby Brown in Paris where I went around and put lipstick kisses on statues around the city.”
We caught up with Jihan to get a glimpse into the inspiring Geronimo Balloons universe, including her tips for happiness, her most memorable art installation, and her love of tamales and Echo Park (admittedly, she hijacked the Q&A, but in the best way possible).
In your own words, explain the mission of Geronimo Balloons.
I am Geronimo, so the mission mirrors my own ambition and mission in life: to delight!
Tell me about your most memorable balloon installation.
It was a house party with Meryl Streep playing Guitar Hero and killing it, Diane Keaton serving punch and Anjelica Huston offering to arm wrestle anyone who dared. Wait—that didn’t really happen. A page from my imagination!
I mean this very genuinely: I am honored to be a part of every single party, celebration, birthday, event and memory that our balloons are invited to join. Just this week I was asked to help with a “prom-posal” by a 17-year-old boy who wanted to make the surprise for his sweetheart really special. Projects like that are pure joy for my team and I, who are similarly hopeless romantics.
How long is the process of making one of your signature tassled balloons?
My lips are sealed! That’s a trade secret but I will tell you that it takes more time than a rose ceremony on any episode of The Bachelor (which I’m sort of embarrassed to say, we watch as a team each week, printing out ballots and making bets on who will win the show) and less time than baking and decorating a cake.
What brought you to LA?
24-hour Korean spas serving tofu soup, purple bougainvillea, freckles and driving between Highways 2 and 134 on a Sunday afternoon around 4 pm.
Which part of LA do you live in and what’s your favorite part about living there?
I firmly believe the adage “(S)he who seeks beauty will find it,” and I know that no matter where I lived on Earth that I would be able to find something beautiful and inspirational and moving. However, I think my neighborhood is quite beautiful without having to look too hard.
I live in Echo Park, which is the intersection of culture and struggle and new growth and history and fresh-cut fruit carts. I always tell people that I like pretty things, but I LOVE ugly things. I don’t think Echo Park is ugly one bit, but as far as Los Angeles goes, it’s also not the most polished and sophisticated neighborhood. It’s unpretentious and real—there’s graffiti on the walls and gum on the ground, but people help each other to repaint and scrape off. My neighbors are sweet and generous and sing loudly in the shower the songs from the old days of being a mariachi.
You appear to be obsessed with ice cream (or “ice cream horny” as you call it). What are your favorite LA ice cream shops and flavors?
It’s true. I do get very ice cream horny, whether it’s 7 am, 2 pm or 11 pm. I make sure my freezer is stocked with pistachio ice cream. I love going to ice cream shops, but I’m not picky. For me, it’s about the happiness that is palpable while waiting in eager lines of kids just off from school or cute couples on dates. Ice cream always makes for a happier day, no matter the flavor, location or Instagram appeal.
What are a couple of the most unique venues to throw a party in the city?
My favorite party I have ever thrown was at Union Station, with a group of 50 friends all geared-up with instruments, treats, bubble wands and signs to welcome people off the trains to LA. A venue can be any place where you can gather and enjoy the people you care about. Sometimes security asks you to leave, and then you obey so they don’t call the police and arrest you. That’s a party mood-killer.
Happiness seems to be a major part of everything you do. What are some of your tips for being happy?
I try not to be a know-it-all on happiness, but for me, the secret to my happiness is…. drumroll… being unhappy! Nothing arouses my desire to make my life and mind and heart and habits right like being unhappy.
My happiest, most joyful days come after a morning that I didn’t want to leave my bed because I felt like I couldn’t face the challenges of the day. I’m okay with having a bad day, and as an artist I find my best thoughts, work and ideas coming from legitimate life struggles and occasional ennui. But I was born pre-loaded with a bright personality, with unrealistic optimism, incredible joy from close friendships and simple diversions. I can easily be made happy just from watching YouTube videos of Marcel the Shell, who I will now fittingly quote for the answer to this question if you don’t like mine: “Guess why I smile so much. Cuz it’s worth it.”
Do you have a special “happy place” in SoCal?
I have so many happy places! The LA River with a book, the line on Christmas Eve for tamales at Los Cinco Puntos in Boyle Heights, driving through the tunnel while you wind up the road in Griffith Park to the Observatory, The Vista on Sunset for movies, exploring the winding and rock wall roads of Sierra Madre.
You work a lot with setting up special events. In your professional opinion, what are the essential aspects of making a party fun and successful and what are things we can skip or that people won’t really appreciate?
To me, the best thing a party can have is “heart.” Darling striped straws, elaborate cakes and fireworks should just be accessories to a party that draws people together. Good conversation, to me, is more memorable than any meal I’ve been served at a party.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on some experiential art projects around the country—creating interactive visual installations for people to stumble upon across the country in big and small cities. I am also working on a podcast and polishing rocks in my industrial tumbler. I’m trying to get the actor (Felicity heartthrob of the ‘90s) Scott Speedman to ask me out on a date. Or just notice me. He’s always at the coffee shop I go to for my mint tea.
Who do you want to be when you grow up?
A softer, kinder, wiser, funnier, more patient, better paint-prepping version of myself that also likes hanging my clothes up instead of throwing them on my closet floor. Ohh—and also someone who calls people back a bit faster. However, maybe we won’t have phones in the future so I won’t need to worry about that.
For more on Jihan Zencirli visit Geronimo online.
All WOCs of Life is a series of interviews with Women of Color in all stages of their life.