Mike Han is a modern vandal.
Having mastered the art form of sushi at Katsuya in Los Angeles, Roka Akor in Chicago, and Zuma in Miami, Han has returned to his Detroit roots to embrace his art and unique philosophy that in order to create, one must destroy.
EXP: You’re a chef, creative director, entrepreneur, visual artist, and muralist. Which do you most identify with?
MH: I’m an artist but it took a pandemic for me to fully embrace that.
EXP: How has your work in building sustainable sushi programs at award-winning Japanese restaurants across the country shaped your philosophy of food and art?
MH: I practiced and advocated for sustainable sushi because of my philosophy in art. I’ve held this belief that in order to create, you must destroy. For me, that idea is filled with emotion and responsibility working with food because I had to take life (sometimes literally with live seafood), in order to nourish another. I hope to help others consider the implications of actions when creating or consuming.
EXP: Which artist do you most admire and why?
MH: Keith Haring is my greatest inspiration. He believed that art should be accessible. He was on a mission to bring joy into people’s lives because he believed the world needed art. Haring was generous, kind, and prolific.
EXP: How would you describe your artwork to a blind a person?
MH: My work is to help people see things that the human eye can’t see, even when it’s right in front of them. It asks, how can we create and truly add value to this world when nearly every act of creation requires destruction, and each act has unintended/unforeseeable consequences.
I find it pretty interesting that in this way, a blind person may see just as much or more than someone who is constantly being deceived by their sight.
EXP: How has your artwork evolved over the years?
MH: For the past 10 years my visual language and the themes of my work have stayed surprisingly consistent. It has been black and white with the attempt to get viewers to consider how everything is connected even when we appear to be in sharp contrast.
I guess I’ve evolved by weaving my personal story into the narrative of my work. I’ve hidden behind a pseudonym for years and wanted the work to stand alone, but in 2020, I’ve begun to sign my artwork, and am intentionally working to build confidence as Mike Han the person and artist. In fact, with my first solo show (which debuted online at www.thehouseofhan.com), I painted a triptych that acts as a self-portrait, and to promote it, I’ve posted videos on my Instagram @mikehan_detroit talking about really dark times in my life.
EXP: Your work has been commissioned by Fortune 500 companies, restaurants, private residences, and for public spaces. Which project has meant the most to you?
MH: Without doubt, it’s the “We Are Detroit Mural” on the Dequindre Cut. On July 17th, 2013, I painted my interpretation of the city’s flag on the opposite side of that wall in black and white. Black is a spectrum of color, and it represents all the people of Detroit. That piece was titled “Speramus Meliora, Resurget Cinerabus”, Detroit’s motto which translates into, “We hope for better things, it will rise from the ashes.”
The next day on July 18th, 2013, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy had an event called Soiree on the Greenway, where I facilitated a community mural. All the guests were given cans of Plutonium Paint (a Detroit aerosol company) in every color of the spectrum and were instructed to tag their name, loved ones, or Detroiters who inspired them on the wall. The wall was masked off with paper and tape to unveil a hidden message after it was painted.
Just before I peeled back the paper, I was informed that the city had just declared bankruptcy. In one of the city’s darkest hours, our community was creating a message of hope. It still gives me chills.
EXP: The phone rings and it’s your ultimate dream commission. Who’s on the line and what’s the project?
MH: It’s Ford, and they’re asking me to paint their Mustang Mach-E for its launch. It’s the future of Ford and because of its bold innovative design, I think it symbolizes the future of Detroit. The interior is inspired by the city’s rich Mid-Century Modern design heritage and I was cradled from birth in a custom Eames rocker that Herman Miller made for me as my Dad used to work for them and Knoll. The Mach-E is also sustainable, which of course also resonates with me deeply.
So, that’s what I want more than anything.
EXP: If we went to happy hour in Detroit, where would it be and what would you order?
MH: I’d say Batch Brewing Company. I don’t go out much, but when I do, it’s all out. So, we would order 4-5 things off the food menu, and then I’d ask Stephen what he’s drinking and go with that. He’s awesome, they’re awesome, and even more so now with the incredible work they’re doing to help the industry during the pandemic.
EXP? Flashback to when you were 10 years old. What do you want to be when you grow up?
MH: Had to ask my mom, ‘cause I don’t remember. Apparently, I wanted to be a cartoonist.
EXP: Flash forward to 2021. What are you most excited for?
MH: Getting that phone call from Ford 😉