Twist of fate: How a chance encounter blew up Zak Robbins’ world

Photo: Jackson Smith Photo: Jackson Smith

When Zak Robbins was in sixth grade, he spotted a long line of people one afternoon on the Downtown Mall. Upon closer inspection, he realized everyone was waiting their turn for a balloon animal, so he joined the queue. When he finally made it to the front, he asked for “the biggest, most elaborate thing [the artist] could make: a giant scorpion.” Back home, Robbins says he studied it for a long time, and finally thought, “I need to do this.”

And, just like that, a business was born: Balloon Art By Zak (balloonartbyzak.com).

But before Robbins, now 16, could take his own show on the road, he needed to teach himself a thing or two. He ordered books, studied videos and purchased balloons. A lot of balloons, which he twisted into a variety of shapes during every spare moment. After months of nonstop squeaks emanating from their son’s bedroom, Robbins’ parents realized he was serious about his hobby, so they contacted a friend who runs an entertainment company.

Before you could say, “I’d like Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber, please,” Robbins was working birthday parties, company picnics and family gatherings.

When he was in seventh grade, Robbins attended the first of several balloon conventions in Washington, D.C., where he went to hands-on classes and seminars, as well as business sessions that helped him build his company. It was at these conventions that he met and learned techniques from “people who have been making balloon art for most of their lives,” he says. “They taught me the skills I now use. I love to look at what other artists have made and play off that; once you’ve learned all the twists, you incorporate your own style.”

At the start of his career, Robbins says he was nervous and, in addition to crafting dogs, swords and hats, he had to “work on being entertaining; [the job is] about so much more than giving out a balloon.” He also admits that in the early months, his creations tended to be too elaborate—SpongeBob SquarePants, superheroes and Looney Tunes characters, for example—and he quickly figured out some partygoers would leave empty-handed if it took him five minutes to make each balloon. “Now I crank them out in a minute or less, and everyone goes home happy,” Robbins says, adding that at smaller events he can take his time and make anything anyone wants.

When asked about his most elaborate work, he pulls out his cell phone, which contains a photo of him wearing a full-body Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle balloon costume that took him more than five hours to “make around myself.” Robbins says he’s never been stumped by a request at an event, and enjoys creating snakes because “I can scale it up and make 6′-long boa constrictors and wrap them around the kids.” Supplies for a party with 20 children include 500 to 600 balloons in his belt, with a couple hundred extras for restocking, as well as Sharpies for drawing faces and pumps for inflating balloons.

During the school year, the high school sophomore, who plays the bass guitar, runs track and is enrolled in three AP courses, has to scale back to two or three parties a month, but in the summer, he might do that many events in a week. And his work isn’t just for children: “Often parents will hire me for the kids, but by the end of the party, the grownups are sitting around me and asking for balloons.”

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