How sushi chef and calligraphy master Mike Han overcame self-doubt to embark on an exploration of Asian-American identity
By Jaclyn Trop
Photography by Darrel Ellis
Growing up, Mike Han had three obsessions: sushi, calligraphy, and graffiti.
“That minimalism of Japanese sushi and Asian calligraphy, I think that’s the connection between the paint brush and the knife stroke,” says the Detroit-based Korean-American artist, now 36. “It’s that philosophy of one stroke from the bottom of the knife to the very tip.”
Known for his graffiti-inspired black-and-white murals, Han approaches his art with the precision of a sushi chef preparing a flawless sashimi cut. “For my painting, that’s the goal,” says Han, who worked as a sushi chef in Denver, Miami, Los Angeles, and Chicago. “I want to create each line with one brush stroke and avoid retracing. I don’t touch things up. For me, it’s one process, one forward motion.”
But the road to branding himself an artist wasn’t as direct.
Born in Ann Arbor, Han moved with his family for his father’s job to Boston, Westport, Conn., and Holland, Mich., before graduating from Canton High School in 2002. He first tapped his inner artist in his mid-20s on a trip to South Korea, where he visited an aunt who designs fashion for dolls — and returned home with the goal to become a toy designer. But after a brief stint at Los Angeles’ Otis College of Art and Design — “When I got there, I was supposed to spend two years drawing naked people, and I didn’t last very long” — he took a job at Katsuya, a renowned L.A. sushi restaurant. “Art wasn’t something that I felt like I could really do as a career. Selling art to make a living — I just didn’t think it was possible. I felt like it was something that I did, but it wasn’t who I was.”
Still, while climbing the ladder at high-end restaurants around the country — progressing from dishwasher to head sushi chef at the likes of Zuma Miami, Bamboo Sushi in Denver, Roka Akor Chicago, and Mayanoki NYC — he continued to make art on the side. He moved between Detroit and various cities while taking on projects: He created murals on the Dequindre Cut and for Google for Startups in Grand Circus Park, and worked with The Woodward Windows Project and Red Bull Detroit to transform seven vacant blocks of downtown Detroit into a world-class public art gallery. “Mike had the foresight to think outside the box in fun and engaging ways to integrate art into the community,” says Matt Eaton, program manager for Red Bull Arts. “He’s focused on how the community digests art rather than how people digest his art specifically.”
But last year marked a turning point. When the pandemic scrapped his plans to open an eight-seat Korean-American sushi counter in Ann Arbor, “I had no idea how I was going to make rent, so I decided I might as well make a go of it,” he says, referring to his art career. “It was this super-weird aha moment, like ‘I have to do this because I have nothing else to lose.’”
The pandemic’s global fallout, coupled with a media more aware of prejudice against Asian-Americans, compelled Han to confront headier themes like “ideas about Korean-Americanness and the individual, community and connectedness,” he says. “As a society, that’s what we’re constantly evaluating: How do individuals become responsible members of the whole? How do I participate in cultural norms and assimilate, but how do I also preserve my heritage, what makes me different? And how do I do that in a way that compels people?”
Still, there was the fear of facing the blank canvas. “It was an exercise in overcoming anxiety, thinking ‘I don’t want to ruin this piece of paper.’ If I’m going to make marks on something, then I’d better make it better than what it was before.” He wasn’t even used to signing his own name to his work: Since his first public show in Ann Arbor in 2009, he signed his pieces “Icon.” “That’s what I was called at school when I was young,” he says, “because my name, Mike Han, sounds like ‘Icon’ when you say it fast. For a long time, I wanted to hide behind something – a name, or a brand, or whatever. It probably had something to do with not being confident in my identity.”
In January, he signed his real name — branded as “House of Han” — to his work for the first time, hosting a virtual show, “Altered Plans,” from inside his Piety Hill apartment. Unique visitors to the site totaled 1,370 during the month-long show. The 16 paintings use salvaged blueprints from the Meyer Jewelry Co. Building downtown to explore what Han calls “the ongoing narrative about Detroit — about living, dying, and being reborn.” Soon after, in April, he opened “Disparate,” a 20-painting installation at The Siren Hotel using maps to represent cultural unity.
Now his art pays his bills, and he signs his name with pride. “Especially after finding out that Han Seok Bong, who was regarded as one of the greatest calligraphers in Korea’s history, is one of my ancestors, I feel a strong responsibility to be successful and make my ancestors proud,” he says. He’s also working on a solo show slated to open on July 3 at Patch and Remington, a new gallery in Marcellus, on the southwest side of the state. The show explores Han’s experience as an American born in Michigan to immigrant parents with Korean heritage. While his love for sushi endures, “Working in restaurants is probably over for me,” he says.
This spring, Han’s work made it into the Detroit Institute of Art. Collaborating with Detroit dance troupe ArtLab J, he created the backdrop mural for “East Meets West: Korean Tea Ceremony,” a contemporary dance inspired by the ancient tradition. His larger-than-life mural is projected on the wall behind the performers. (The performance is available on the DIA’s YouTube channel.)
“The drastic forms meld really well with the dancers,” says Emily Bowyer, who coordinated the museum’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month program series. “We don’t have as much contemporary Asian art, so it’s really important to show that these cultures are a part of contemporary American culture.
”Han is ready for that role. “Before, I didn’t have the courage to stand up on my own two feet, and make art and only make art, like, ‘This is who I am, this is what I do, and I make a living doing that.’” he says. “Looking back, I think that 2020 is going to be one of the most defining periods of my life.”